EPA and Open-Loop Biomass: A Mixed Bag, with Cause for Cautious Optimism

By Bob Cleaves | April 29, 2011

The good news is that the U.S. EPA is finally inching toward officially recognizing open-loop biomass (residues, byproducts and slash) as the reliable clean energy workhorse that we are.

The not-so-good news is that we still have a long way to go until biomass receives incentives anywhere near those enjoyed by other renewable energy sources. In December, the agency issued guidance on the Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule and hinted that it would treat open-loop biomass favorably.

Although the proposed rule defers a final decision for three years while the EPA studies the science of biomass carbon emissions, the agency is recommending that states recognize biomass, in the meantime, as a Best Available Control Technology.

The fact that the EPA would encourage states to treat biomass in a similar fashion to other renewable energy sources before the results of its study are available—before, in fact, the study had even begun—indicates that EPA is starting to get the degree to which the nation relies on biomass as a reliable, job-providing, clean energy source.

Three years, however, is a long time to wait for a final decision, particularly when we are experiencing plant closures at a fairly frequent rate, and when there is already abundant scientific evidence that open-loop biomass emits far fewer harmful gases than fossil fuels.

In early April, I delivered testimony to the agency advocating for an expedited deferral period for open-loop biomass. In my remarks, I emphasized that the science behind the carbon profile of open-loop biomass is already available. With that in mind, why prolong the final decision when the EPA has already endorsed biomass in the form of recommending it as a Best Available Control Technology?

As we face a tough couple of years ahead with low electricity prices and stiff competition from natural gas, the biomass industry simply does not have three years to spare for an EPA study.

The EPA also appears to have good intentions, but has not yet met the mark, when it comes to its Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology rule. While the proposed rule does give traditional biomass a break with regard to its boiler emissions standards, the rule places harsh regulations on several types of biomass materials commonly used by facilities across the country, and places a chilling effect on new projects. If the rule advances as proposed, it will present a challenge to both existing and new facilities.

Luckily, there will be an opportunity for the biomass industry to provide commentary on the potential unintended effects of this ruling. Given the EPA’s recent positive acknowledgements of biomass, I am hopeful that the agency will reconsider its current position.

In my opinion, the EPA’s actions in recent months add up to a net positive. While we still have a long way to go in achieving recognition and regulation on par with other renewable energy sources, it is encouraging to see that the EPA is making incremental steps toward regulations that will benefit the biomass industry in the long term. And the Biomass Power Association is doing everything in its power to keep the momentum going in the short term.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association