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Why Cofiring Biomass with Coal Is Hotter Than Ever

By Kolby Hoagland | November 08, 2013

The ebb and flow of public interest, concern, and ultimately action on climate change can be characterized as tentative. Since Charles David Keeling began measuring atmospheric carbon fifty five years ago on Mauna Loa, the modern world is experiencing the edges of climate change, yet public policies that aim to mitigate GHG emissions often stagnate when public opinion dips. In Australia, a more conservative government and slump in concern around climate change has led to a repeal of their carbon tax. The ebb and flow of interest and action on climate change luckily vaires in other countries.

In the U.S., interest and action on climate change is advancing with the Obama Administration directive to the EPA to regulate GHGs as they would other pollutants through Section 111 of the Clean Air Act. Section 111 has previously been used to impose performance standards for sources to reduce air pollutants such as mercury, sulfur, and lead with great success. Obama chose to use Section 111 of the Clean Air Act because Section 111 has flexibility and strength for regulating "pollution" from new and existing sources, and concensus has labeled atmospheric carbon as a pollutant. The EPA is early in crafting GHG pollution regulation on existing power plant and is currently taking public comment at Public Listening Sessions around the country along with accepting written comments here.

After attending last night’s Public Listening Session that the EPA held in Seattle, I encourage readers to let the EPA know your thoughts. In comments that I submitted, I encouraged the EPA to support the role biomass plays in reducing GHG emissions while minimizing the economic impact of transitioning to a less carbon intense energy system. The New York Times recently described how coal plants are reducing carbon emissions by burning biomass in place of a portion of the coal. In a previous DataPoints, I point out that the EIA, in its Annnual Energy Outlook for 2013, also predicts that cofiring with coal will grow considerably over the coming years. In my comments to the EPA, I urged the EPA to recognize how current coal plants regulation discourages modifications to fuel feeding systems to handle biomass, which is inherently less energy dense and hydrophilic and requires different handling than coal. I encouraged the EPA to modify current coal plant regulation to facilitate biomass cofiring to expand into the coal industry. Coal plants are existing assets with considerable value left in them. Their economic value and importnace to the grid are necessary considerations. 

Drastic measures are currently needed to address the heaviest of GHG polluters. At the same time, it would be financially unwise to simply scrap existing coal plants that have considerable value and years of operational life remaining. Unilaterally scrapping coal plants is unrealistic and will come at a high cost to rate payers and decrease the reliability of the grid. Replacing a portion of a plant's fuel mix with biomass is a viable path towards significant reductions in GHG pollution from coal plants, while also drawing value from the remaining years of a coal plant. Biomass has a key role to play in climate change mitigation, and we, as industry representatives, have a responsibility to support the EPA in crafting regulation that encourages realistic and wise policy.