Vermont law school releases report on sustainable biomass use

By Katie Fletcher | September 04, 2015

The Institute of Energy and Environment at Vermont Law School recently released a report covering sustainable ways to increase the use of woody biomass for electricity generation while protecting Vermont’s forests.  

The report is entitled “Woody Biomass: The Path toward a Sustainable Use of Vermont’s Forests.” The report was established to ensure that Vermont adopts appropriate environmental standards to account for the increased use of woody biomass for energy. The report reads, “Vermont, with 78 percent of the state forested, has the potential to increase the use of this renewable resource, and consequently reduce its dependency on fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.”

Key findings of the report first addressed that there were some environmental concerns associated with the uptake of woody biomass. The concerns vary from harvesting activities to the combustion of wood for energy production. “The central concerns from harvesting are connected to forest health and productivity: soil and water quality, biological diversity and wildlife habitat, and effects on carbon storage,” the report stated. “Regarding woody biomass combustion, the main concern refers to pollutant and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

The report mentioned that the U.S. EPA has been revising its biogenic emissions accounting framework from stationary sources to decide whether specific discounting systems for emissions from biomass-fired units should be adopted. The proper accounting of carbon emissions from woody biomass is especially important to Vermont as it is committed through statutory provisions to reduce emissions. A comprehensive energy plan towards increasing renewables in the state’s energy mix was established in 2011, and woody biomass is expected to play a key role in meeting those targets, according to the report.

Additionally, in July, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that both Vermont and Hawaii passed legislation that would require significant increases in renewable energy generation. On June 11, Vermont passed a bill creating a 75 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS) by 2032, higher than other RPS targets in the U.S. Vermont's new RPS, H.40, also known as Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation, has an interim goal of 55 percent by 2017 and also includes provisions for cutting emissions in the residential and transportation sectors.

Other findings of the report include existing laws and regulations at the federal and state levels aim to address forestry concerns related to harvesting activities, in particular activities developed in public lands. The report found that there is an urgent need to address the particularities related to harvesting from woody biomass, including concerns regarding greater harvesting of biomass and shorter rotations removal when compared to traditional industries, such as pulp and mill. The findings of the IEE consider the approach in the EU of setting minimum standards to ensure that biomass is sustainability harvested as a useful model for Northeastern states to follow, allowing individual states to adopt additional guidelines.

The report acknowledges that there are challenges and concerns over the increased use of woody biomass for energy. The report makes some recommendations the state and regional levels can adopt based on legal research and a review of existing literature. The report offers recommendations from a broad range of organizations which address forest health and sustainability concerns regarding the increased use of woody biomass for energy. “The first recommendation is to develop biomass harvesting guidelines that expressly address specific forestry concerns related to harvesting for woody biomass and ensure that sustainable forest management practices are in place within state boundaries,” the report states.

Another recommendation is to adopt procurement standards for woody biomass to ensure public, government and private sectors are procuring wood that promotes forestry. It was also suggested that Vermont could adopt a certification proves for both programs, which may vary from self-reporting, second-party verification or third-party certification.

The report makes a number of other recommendations including the adoption of a uniform definition of “eligible woody biomass” under RPS and other renewable energy programs across Northeastern states and RGGI member states. According to the report, this is to ensure that only sustainable woody biomass can be accounted for these program and goals’ compliance, and awarded renewable energy credits (RECs) or equivalent.

The IEE believes Northeastern state should establish minimum sustainability criteria, such as efficiency level and emission limits and the states should engage in developing regional biomass harvesting guidelines and procurement standards.

The last recommendation was that the adoption of the thermal renewable energy credits (TRECs), or comparable tool, could ensure similar sustainable standards for wood-fired biomass electric facilities are applied to heat units.

The full report can be found on