University of Florida study downplays RPS potential

By Anna Austin
Posted March 17, 2010, at 2:52 p.m. CST

A recently-released University of Florida study indicates that increased woody biomass use for power generation through implementation of a 7 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS) in Florida would bring about a modest increase in the state's gross domestic product, employment and state government revenues, but suggests that a more ambitious RPS would require significant forest management practices and could have negative implications on the forest products manufacturing sector.

The impetus of "Woody Biomass Economic Study" was to evaluate economic effects that varying statewide RPS levels would have on Florida as well as possible effects on woody biomass demand, supply and timber prices. Florida is not one of 28 U.S. states that have implemented an RPS, but a 20 percent RPS by 2020 has been contemplated since 2008 after being endorsed by the Florida Public Service Commission and Gov. Charlie Crist.

John Bonitz of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said he doesn't think the study proves or disproves the feasibility of a 20 percent RPS in Florida, despite recent doubt-casting media reports suggesting that the state's forests cannot support one. He believes the study does not use the best available renewable energy data, and that it assumes woody biomass to play an extreme role in an RPS. "The other renewable energy source potentialities in the study-wind, solar and hydro-those numbers were almost half of what we found in our Southern Solutions Report (for a National Renewable Energy Standard)," he said. As a result of these drastically lower estimates, Bonitz said, when analyzing the RPS, biomass renewables had to make up that difference and therefore resulted in extreme assumptions.

In the Southern Solutions report, which found that a 20 percent RPS in Florida is feasible, regional power production from biomass even at the highest level outlined in the report's estimates, would require annual harvests of no more than 0.2 percent of forest resources. Bonitz said he agreed with the study's emphasis on a need to improve management of forestlands to grow more wood, which is the case in all woody biomass-to-energy practices. According to the Florida Forestry Association, the state hosts nearly 16 million acres of timber resources that infuse more than $16.6 billion into the state's economy.

The UF study also conflicts with a study commissioned in 2008 by the FPSC and the Florida Governor's Energy Office, which determined that Florida could economically produce nearly 25 percent renewable energy by the year 2020.

Outside of Florida, there are a few other states in the Southeast contemplating an RPS; North Carolina is the only state in the region that has implemented one. Bonitz and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy are working to help southern states evaluate RPS possibilities. Regarding opposition to the role of biomass in RPSs, he said most of it is colored by the media. "It's a small amount of protesters who have a misunderstanding of the technology, and we work throughout the region to answer questions, address concerns and help people learn more about biomass electricity and biofuels," he said. "There are a lot of complexities; it's not a simple technology to address and understand, but it's really easy to succumb to fear mongering. Biomass is clearly something we want to do sustainably; there's tremendous potential in Florida and it's still underestimated and underappreciated."