All Options on the Table

From biomass power to sustainable aviation fuel, decarbonization was a main theme at the 16th annual International Biomass Conference & Expo.
By Katie Schroeder | April 11, 2023

Attendance at the 2023 International Biomass Conference and Expo, held Feb. 28-March 2 in Atlanta, Georgia, was a solid indicator of just how critical the role of bioenergy is to the current push for global decarbonization. Ranking fifth in attendance in the conference’s 16-year history, the event drew industry constituents from 45 states, seven Canadian provinces and 25 countries.

Following a half-day of breakout panel sessions and the opening networking reception, the event’s general session began by bestowing annual industry awards. The Excellence in Bioenergy Award was given to Rob Davis, former owner of Forest Energy Corp. who dedicated the bulk of his career to forestry advocacy. The Groundbreaker of the Year Award went to Biomass One LP, a biomass power and biochar producer in White City, Oregon. Accepting the award on the company’s behalf was Karl Straub, chief operating officer.

Following the awards was the annual roundtable with association leadership, led by Anna Simet, editor of Biomass Magazine. Joining the panel were Carrie Annand, executive director of the Biomass Power Association; Tim Portz, executive director of the Pellet Fuels Institute; Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council; Amandine Muskus, executive director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association; and Paul Winters, director of public affairs and federal communications with Clean Fuels Alliance America.

When asked what facet of their industry sectors they see as the primary selling point for their industries and what should be of focus during conversations with policymakers and consumers, Portz said that he believes it would be waste utilization. “The reality is that cooking oil is still going to be produced, food is still going to expire, [we’re still] going to make square things out of round trees, and we do value-added things to those waste streams,” Portz said. “We have to help people understand that we’re not [deforesting] the American southeast to make industrial pellets. For instance, we’re not suddenly making more 2x4s so that our friends at Lignetics or Michigan Wood Fuels can make more wood pellets—that’s not how this works.”
Serfass explained that he thinks the key buzzword right now is “carbon” and explained that emphasizing how their industries can help reduce carbon is vital as carbon reduction policies become more prevalent. Annand said that she thinks adaptability is key to the biomass industry’s narrative by harnessing new technology while not forgetting the traditional benefits the industry provides. Muskus explained that “creativity” is her word for the pellet industry, as producers look for ways to use waste to make energy, and customers look for ways to decarbonize industries like aluminum and cement, which are difficult to decarbonize. Winters emphasized carbon as the key buzzword for his industry as well, as decarbonization has become a key issue that is getting attention form large corporations.

Winters explained that renewable diesel production in the United States has been growing rapidly, increasing by 500 million gallons in 2022. In light of this growth, there is a mismatch between U.S. EPA and what the industry is planning, which may limit investments, he explained. With the Inflation Reduction Act bringing a clean fuels credit determined by carbon lifecycle analysis, Winters explained that the main issue the Clean Fuels Alliance is focused on ensuring that the U.S. Treasury “gets those rules right and allows equal access … to those tax credits.”

Though the year was average to below average from a sales and production standpoint due to a mild winter, policy was a different story for the domestic wood pellet industry, Portz said. For the home pellet heating industry, the Inflation Reduction Act provided an attractive 30% appliance tax credit for qualifying appliances. Although the IRA did not provide any incentives for heating systems for businesses, the 10-year timeframe of the tax incentives gives “a good, long runway” for homeowners to purchase stoves.

Serfass has seen significant growth in the renewable natural gas sector. “It’s a really good time to be in biogas,” he said. “In 2021, the number of operational projects turning biogas into RNG increased by 47%, and another 20 to 30% in 2022.”

The U.S. export sector for industrial wood pellets grew 20% percent year over year in 2022, the bulk of which are going to Europe and a growing market in Asia—specifically Japan, explained Muskus. She sees the industry as a good low carbon energy opportunity, offering a great option to continue a focus on decarbonization utilizing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Muskus is cautiously optimistic about the market opportunities in the EU after the Renewable Energy Directive.  She discussed the potential impact of the IRA on bioenergy producers in the U.S. by increasing tax credits for carbon capture and storage, making it possible for them to build this technology. “The other thing that I really think the IRA has recognized is the need for active forest management, and the multiple benefits that it provides,” Muskus said. “It’s no longer an option to leave forests on their own to face the many hazards of a changing climate. And part of what has come with this also is recognition by the U.S. government that we can utilize the fiber that is produced from sustainable forest management to displace fossil fuels and help the transition toward renewable energy.”

Annand discussed the impacts of the IRA on the biomass industry, including extended tax credits and the hike in 45Q tax credits, making it easier for bioenergy producers to implement carbon capture and storage systems. The IRA also gave $100 million to the Forest Service for distribution to the biomass industry to remove hazardous fuels that have built up in forests and increase the risk of wildfires. “We’re talking to the forest service every day about how to direct those dollars to the proper, effective use of the biomass [being cleared out] of the forest,” Annand said.

The 2024 International Biomass Conference & Expo will be held in Richmond, Virginia, March 4-6, 2024.

Author: Katie Schroeder
[email protected]