Report: Biomass, biofuels can help US meet net-zero goal

By Erin Voegele | June 30, 2020

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis on June 30 unveiled a climate crisis action plan that aims to serve as a congressional roadmap to help the U.S. reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Biomass, biogas and biofuels will help meet that goal, according to the committee.

The report, titled “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America,” includes detailed, actionable climate solutions that the committee says Congress should enact to benefit American families in communities across the nation. The plan calls on Congress to grow the U.S. economy and put Americans back to work in clean energy jobs; protect the health of all families; make sure U.S. communities and farmers can withstand the impacts of climate change; and protect America’s land and waters for the next generation.

Within the plan, the committee recommends that Congress invest in research to better understand the lifecycle carbon implications of wood use and wood products, including accurately accounting for the climate impacts of biomass. “This research should require (1) that methods used to evaluate climate impacts of biomass are transparent, predictable, replicable, and based on the best available science; (2) methods that employ the counterfactual scenario to assess additionality of biomass use; (3) evaluation of both positive emissions – releases of carbon – and negative emissions – carbon sequestered through the growth of biomass; (4) a life-cycle analysis from growth to harvest or collection, processing, and combustion of both direct and indirect sources of emissions; (5) inclusion of non-carbon emissions, such as methane and nitrogen oxide; (6) analysis of negative and positive emissions in a time frame relevant to what the IPCC identified for meeting the atmospheric carbon reductions needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C; and (7) consideration of other activities that compete for land use, such as food and timber production, habitat preservation, and reforestation,” said the committee in the report. The report also recommends Congress establish safeguards to ensure wood biomass does not contribute to the biodiversity crisis.

Another component of the plan focuses on the potential of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates will be used to achieve carbon removal at a scale larger than a few hundred gigatons.

The report notes that Archer Daniels Midland began operations at a commercial-scale BECCS project in 2017. That project captures and stores carbon dioxide produced at an ethanol plant.

“Looking ahead, key areas for research include developing sustainable biomass supply such as algae, converting biomass to low-carbon fuels and electricity, and achieving cost reductions,” the committee wrote in the report. “The Energy Futures Initiative recommends studying carbon dynamics, technological development, and biomass sustainability for BECCS.”

The committee recommends that Congress direct the U.S. Department of Energy to establish a BECCS research program in coordination with the USDA and U.S. Bureau of Land Management with a cost target of less than $100 per ton. The committee also recommends that the DOE develop standards for understanding the lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission and land-use impacts of BECCS and best practices to improve carbon removal while minimizing land and environmental impacts.  

The plan also shows that fuel-switching in industrial operations can help reduce emissions from industrial process heat. The report notes that renewable thermal technologies, including solar thermal, certain biomass, geothermal energy, and renewable natural gas (RNG) can lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by replacing fossil energy sources.

In addition, the committee’s plan addresses state renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) and carve-outs in some state plans for renewable thermal energy. The committee recommends that Congress draft legislation to establish a federal low-emission heat portfolio/performance standard to advance the deployment of low-emission heating technologies in industry.

Transportation fuels are also addressed. Within the plan, the committee calls on Congress to build on the Renewable Fuel Standard with a transition to a Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The current version of the RFS, enacted in 2007, requires U.S. transportation fuels to contain minimum volumes of biofuels, including specific targets for advanced biofuels, cellulosic biofuels and biomass-based diesel through 2022. After 2022, however, the U.S. EPA is given more discretion in setting annual blending obligations.

“The 2022 date offers an opportunity to build on the RFS and transition to a program that encourages the development and production of liquid fuels that meet certain carbon emissions standards,” wrote the committee in the report. “The California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), for example, assesses fuels based on a lifecycle carbon intensity benchmark—the amount of emissions per unit of energy output—that declines over time. The lifecycle assessment considers the direct greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing, transporting, and using the fuel and indirect emissions associated with changes in land use for some biofuels. Fuels with a carbon intensity below the benchmark generate credits, while fuels with a carbon intensity above the benchmark generate deficits.”

According to the report, biodiesel, renewable diesel and ethanol generated approximately 75 percent of California’s LCFS credits in 2018 and 2019. The report also notes that the state’s LCFS policy has supported growth of electricity as a transportation fuel.

The committee notes that a broad coalition of agriculture, environmental, renewable liquid fuel, and electricity stakeholders have developed a framework for a Midwest Clean Fuel Standard that would significantly reduce transportation greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and generate economic benefits for the region.

“As the U.S. economy moves toward a net-zero by 2050 goal, low-carbon liquid fuels will have an important role to play in reducing oil consumption in the transportation sector and averting greenhouse gas emissions,” said the committee in the report. “The conversion to electric or other zero-emission vehicles will not happen overnight. Harder-to-decarbonize sectors where electrification may not be cost-effective, such as shipping, aviation, and long-haul trucking, could look to low-carbon liquid fuels as a potential solution. Highly efficient engines also could drive new demand for high-octane, low-carbon fuels.”

“The standard should set a technology- and feedstock-neutral benchmark for liquid and non-liquid fuels tied to a lifecycle assessment of the carbon intensity of the fuels,” the committee explained. “The carbon intensity standard should become more stringent (lower) over time. The lifecycle assessment should reflect the best-available science about the carbon intensity of fuel production, farming practices, land use changes, and crop productivity. The standard should include guardrails to prevent conversion of any non-agricultural lands into cropland, particularly sensitive lands with high carbon sequestration and biodiversity value. For renewable liquid fuels, the LCFS should reward entities in the value chain, including farmers and producers, that use climate-smart practices that reduce carbon emissions, store soil carbon, and reduce nitrous oxide emissions.”

The committee also notes the LCFS should allow low-carbon shipping and aviation fuels that meet carbon intensity standards to qualify for credits.

In addition, the report addresses the EPA’s failure to incorporate renewable electricity into the RFS program despite being directed by Congress to study the feasibility of issues renewable identification numbers (RINs) under the RFS to electric vehicles powered by electricity produced from renewable sources. “Unless and until Congress creates an LCFS, Congress should direct EPA to complete any necessary rulemakings or other administrative steps necessary to allow the generation of eRINs for biogas-derived electricity used as a transportation fuel,” the committee wrote in the report.

Another component of the report urges Congress to increase research, development and demonstration funding for next-generation biofuels and other alternative fuels.

The U.S. Industrial Pellet Association has spoken out to welcome the committee’s report. “In the midst of a truly global climate crisis, we welcome today’s report and its driving ambition to decarbonize the US economy,” said Seth Ginther, executive director of the USIPA. “Given our vast and increasing forest resources, there is tremendous potential for sustainable biomass to become an integral part of America’s low-carbon, renewable energy mix.”

“BECCS represents the prospect of generating carbon negative electricity, which will be a game-changing technology when deployed at scale,” Ginther added. “We look forward to working with Members of Congress to develop policies that help our country realize the full benefits and potential of sustainable biomass in moving us closer to a carbon-neutral economy.”

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization said biotech innovation will pay a key role in solving the climate crisis. “Biotech companies that develop and manufacture sustainable fuels and other biobased products are helping to decarbonize the transportation and manufacturing sectors, reducing air pollution, mitigating other harmful environmental impacts, and improving public health,” said Stephanie Batchelor, vice president of BIO’s Industrial and Environmental Section.

“A national low carbon fuel standard can build off the worthy intentions of the RFS,” Batchelor added. “We’ve seen how such policies implemented at the state level at BIO’s urging have invigorated the use of clean fuels and helped to achieve a reduced climate footprint.”

The report also recognizes the need to develop cost-effective, scalable methods to measure and quantify carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction on farms and ranches, and study the feasibility of developing a federal tax credit to incentivize carbon sequestration and abatement on farms. Other recommendations include the need for biology-based tools to enable agriculture to adapt and be part of the solution to climate change such as the development of feed additives.    

“BIO appreciates the committee for recognizing the role that clean energy, green manufacturing and agricultural innovation play in mitigating climate change, protecting human health and bolstering a biobased economy,” said Batchelor.

“As the committee and Congress work to address climate change, we believe the inclusion of pro-innovation policies and technologies will help expand American leadership in this space, reduce our dependence on foreign sources of supply and demand, and reinvigorate rural and other economically struggling communities across the United States,” she continued.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’s website.