Industry experts discuss wood's role in U.S. energy policy

By Lisa Gibson | October 12, 2011

A single, science-based and inclusive definition of biomass is the focal point in the biomass industry’s efforts to bolster policy that can spur development, according to Charlie Niebling, general manager of pellet producer New England Wood Pellet. 

He spoke during a general session panel for the Northeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show, held Oct. 11-13 in Pittsburgh. Niebling was among four speakers who examined the 25x’25 National Wood-to-Energy Roadmap, focusing on the report’s four main points—wood demand and supply, sustainability, carbon and climate change, and policy.

Niebling focused on policy, letting attendees in on his opinion as to what areas will be the most important moving forward. Besides a biomass definition, opposition of tax subsidies for fossil fuel energy, targeted extension of tax credits or authorization of new ones, and support for appropriations for specific programs will be crucial, he said. Glancing at fellow speaker John Ferrell, who is the chair of the U.S. DOE’s Woody Biomass Utilization Group, Niebling added that an expansion of the DOE’s Biomass Program to embrace thermal projects is also of utmost importance.

Comparing the biomass industry policy environment in 2010 to that of today, Niebling pointed out the burgeoning tax policies, Farm Bill, fiscal stimulus, and new investments of 2010. “It was a very rich and fertile period,” he said, adding later, “Things have changed rather dramatically in the past 18 months.”

In the wood-to-energy roadmap, policy recommendations are general and include setting realistic energy goals with properly scaled mandates; keeping forests as forests; refraining from distinguishing between new and old investments; increasing the supply of wood; and ensuring sustainability. “That is a given in this industry,” he said of sustainability.

Tasked with addressing the sustainability portion of the roadmap, speaker Bruce Arnold, consultant for Woody Biomass Pulp and Paper, said one of the main questions addressed by the sustainability working group in the report’s research was how to protect forest values in the midst of an increased demand for wood as energy feedstock. Millenium Ecosystem Assessment recently came up with a definition of forest sustainability services that includes provisioning, such as food and water; regulating, including climate, floods and disease; cultural, including recreational and aesthetic; and supporting, including nutrient cycling.

“Land conversion is the major threat to our nation’s forests,” Arnold said. Interestingly, he told the crowd that the same amount of forest cover from 100 years ago still exists today, although urban development is expected to reduce forest cover by 4 percent by 2050. “Now the good news,” he continued. “Sustainable forest management is existing and it is widespread.” Removal of woody biomass for energy may actually improve forest health and help prevent or reduce wildfires, he concluded.

Dave Tenny, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, followed Arnold and addressed the carbon and climate change aspect of the wood-to-energy roadmap. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re often times considered part of the problem, in terms of policy,” Tenny said, adding life is better when you’re part of the solution.

He launched into an explanation of the ongoing forest carbon cycle, saying that looking only at the carbon dioxide release portion of the cycle, as the U.S. EPA’s Tailoring Rule did upon its release, portrays an incomplete picture. “When you only take that part of the cycle into account, you are part of the problem,” Tenny said. Tailoring Rule regulation is now deferred for biogenic emissions for the next three years, as the EPA employs a team of scientists to investigate the forest carbon cycle.

During that time, it’s important for the biomass industry to be active in communicating its own benefits. “It’s time to start speaking up,” Tenny said. Key talking points to communicate to Congress, the USDA, DOE, White House and EPA include removing policy restraints from the scientific review of biogenic emissions, and ensuring consideration of new information regarding carbon life cycles and forest carbon.

The DOE did have a presence on the panel through Ferrell, who addressed wood demand and supply. A few of the wood supply findings from the roadmap include the fact that wood for energy demand will be driven by short-term public policy. He also emphasized that the report’s sustainability working group found the role of public lands in wood supply to be modest in the future.

He mentioned the 2011 Billion-Ton Update, released in August, which investigated biomass supply through 2030 under a number of scenarios. The baseline scenario with cost of biomass at $60 per ton, found about 473 million dry tons for 2012, increasing to 1.1 billion in 2030.

Ferrell also mentioned initiatives bolstering liquid biofuels and said logistics are the Achilles heel of biomass energy.

Arnold said the National Wood-to-Energy Roadmap is crucial at a time when interest in wood energy is increasing, while private forest investment lags, forest health and fire threats present large concerns, and views of using biomass for energy differ.

“There’s growing interest, clearly, in wood for energy in the U.S.,” Arnold said.