Recent biomass studies misconstrued, inaccurate

By Anna Austin
Posted June 16, 2010, at 4:45 p.m. CST

Mainstream media outlets have largely misinterpreted a biomass sustainability and carbon policy report released last week by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, according to study contributor Pinchot Institute for Conservation.

In fact, the rapidly spreading assertion that woody biomass is dirtier than coal "couldn't be farther from the truth," Pinchot President Al Sample told reporters during a media advisory call held June 16, held to clear up erroneous news stories regarding the report's indications of woody biomass power plant environmental consequences in comparison with coal power plants.

The six-month study, titled "Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study," was performed to address a wide array of social, scientific, economic and technical issues related to the use of forest biomass for generating energy in Massachusetts, after citizen and activist opposition to three proposed biomass power projects in the state prompted the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources to commission the study. Pinchot's main role in the study was to provide a review of regulations and standards needed to ensure the sustainability of forest resources in light of potential increases in wood consumption for bioenergy.

Sample said initially, an Associated Press story mischaracterized the study, and then countless other news outlets continued to repeat the same inaccuracies. "It was a gross simplification that resulted in a misinterpretation of the study's overall conclusions," Sample said.

As far as the data that influenced the misconstrued assumptions, Sample said when narrowly interpreted, the study suggests that when looking at the smokestack emissions, woody biomass emits slightly more CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced. That does not at all mean it is more polluting or inferior to coal plants, however, because it doesn't take into consideration any type of life-cycle analysis or other harmful emissions that coal emits and biomass does not. "That [wrong] impression surprised a number of us who contributed to the study," he said.

Sample emphasized that the reason Pinchot felt it should provide clarification on the matter was because the organization is a nonprofit research institution that serves to provide accurate and comprehensive information to policymakers; he also noted that some groups may benefit unfairly from the widely circulated misreading. "We need to ensure that [policymakers] decisions, particular on wood biomass energy in the U.S., are based on fully comprehensive and accurate data, as we have the American Power Act and a number of other things in play," Sample said.

He added that the institution still feels that it is a strong study, though, and provides good analyses and information that was not previously available.

Adding insult to injury, the Environmental Working Group released a report June 16 that associates biomass power with "clear-cutting trees," wrongly claiming that state and federal incentive policies would soon support such activities.

In the report, EWG states it calculates that the current recommended goal of generating 25 percent of U.S. electricity from renewable sources by 2025 would require the equivalent of clear-cutting between 18 million and 30 million acres of forest. The claim significantly contrasts with studies performed by other renewable energy technology-neutral groups, such as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, that have calculated the goal as achievable using only wood waste materials that the biomass power industry actually uses.

Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves said prior to the report he had not been aware of the organization, and that its assertions have no relevance to how power is generated from biomass today in the U.S. or to how it will be in the foreseeable future. "The study is flatly wrong that federal tax incentives are used to harvest trees; both the production tax credit and investment tax credit are only available for waste wood products, and the law has been clear on this point for about six years," he said. "The assumption that biomass electricity uses or will use harvested, merchantable trees to make power and will do so increasingly if Congress passes aggressive renewable energy laws is based on a premise without any economic analysis that suggests it's even viable to use whole trees." If that were the case, Cleaves pointed out, the many biomass power plants that are currently idle in the country, most located in heavily forested areas, would be running. "Right now they can't afford even waste wood at current fuel and power prices, let alone whole trees at twice the cost," he said.

Referring to President Obama's recent call for a constructive dialogue on changing the U.S.'s energy policies in light of the BP Gulf oil spill, Cleaves pointed out that it will never be accomplished by engaging in tired rhetoric or environmental scare tactics. "We (the biomass power industry] welcome the debate," he said. "But let's get the facts right � we are going to make every effort we can to protect the truth."