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Franz Matzner’s Blog

Renewable Energy Standard 2.0

Franz Matzner

Posted October 31, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming

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The American Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act introduced by Senator Markey of Massachusetts is truly a landmark bill that will create jobs and cut carbon  pollution by requiring electric utilities to obtain a minimum of 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, biomass, and other renewable energy sources by 2025.  The bill will also help customers get more energy for their dollars of spending by requiring that electric utilities achieve a 15% reduction in energy use and natural gas suppliers achieve a 10% reduction in use. 

Already, the clean energy revolution is employing thousands of workers across the country, while reducing carbon pollution.  According to the BLS, 3.4 million people are already employed across the country in clean jobs, many of them weatherizing homes, producing high-efficiency air-conditioning systems, installing solar panels and wind turbines, and developing advanced new renewable technology. Energy efficiency remains the cheapest, cleanest, fastest way to cut pollution and save dollars while creating jobs.

The evidence is clear.  We know how to cut pollution and grow the economy.  But we can—and must—do far more in order to meet our obligation to future generations to cut carbon pollution and combat climate change.  The American Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act will help achieve that goal by accelerating the transition of our energy sector away from polluting fossil fuels to clean energy sources like wind, solar, and energy efficiency.

The American Renewable Energy and Efficiency act represents the next step in renewable energy standards in another critical way. It helps make a clear distinction between “clean” forms of biomass energy and “dirty” biomass.  Without this distinction, we simply do not know if we are making climate change worse, or helping solve the problem.

Over the past two years emerging scientific evidence has discredited certain types of bioenergy from forests as a clean, renewable fuel. Specifically, landmark studies of biopower generation across the country have found that burning whole trees to produce electricity actually increases carbon pollution for decades compared with coal and other fossil fuels. Yes, that’s right, far from being "carbon neutral," whole trees are a bigger carbon polluter than coal.

At the same time, when we log our forests for biomass, we destroy one of our best weapons in the fight against climate change.  Cutting down trees for energy production impedes ongoing forest carbon sequestration and disrupts soils, which serve as a vital “carbon sink.”

So there is no place for burning whole trees in a renewable electricity portfolio. Instead, electricity from biomass should be fueled predominantly by short-rotation crops, perennial grasses, wood waste and reclaimed wood, and thinning “residues” (tops and branches) – all of which do not significantly increase carbon emissions.  

That’s why Senator Markey’s bill is so critical.  The bill ensures that only truly clean forms of biomass are used. The bill requires that eligible biomass produce 50 percent lower carbon emissions compared with fossil fuels over a 20-year period - thus ensuring that electricity is produced from only clean forms of biomass.

In another important step, the bill instructs the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure that the accounting of these emissions reductions is done in a scientifically rigorous fashion. The agency is tasked with developing a carbon accounting framework that validates emissions reductions from biomass by consulting and coordinating with its own Scientific Advisory Board on biomass carbon accounting.  This board has established the gold standard for calculating carbon emissions from biomass sources and its recommendations should be strictly followed by the EPA.

Finally the bill establishes standards for biomass sourcing that protect our land and wildlife.  In particular it mandates that harvesting biomass be off limits in ecologically unique and sensitive areas, including old growth and other habitats for rare and imperiled species.  These protections are critically important because as demand for biomass fuel grows, we need to make sure that our landscapes and ecosystems do not suffer as a result. 

Senator Markey should be applauded for proposing a forward-looking renewable energy standard that would help combat climate change, protect wildlife habitat, and follows the best science.

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Comments

Joseph ZorzinNov 1 2013 02:23 PM

The argument against using whole trees from forests for energy is grossly exaggerated- mostly because people just pass along what someone else said, or based on the dubious Manomet Report.

For starters, if trees aren't used for energy- does anyone think the forest will remain as is, just continuing to sequester carbon? Of course not- most forests have been and will continue to be harvested- rightly or wrongly. Thinning the forest based on good silviculture can INCREASE growth rate by leaving the healthy trees- a better form of forestry than the more typical high grading and clearcutting.

Regarding the supposed science that burning whole trees is "worse than coal"- a conclusion many got from the infamous Manomet Report- that's questionable because that report only looked at the stand being cut, not the entire forest of a region. There is no "carbon debt" if the entire region is looked at- and if the entire forest of the region is in fact being well managed.

I happen to believe in man caused global warming so I don't support continued avoidable carbon emissions- but the case against woody biomass is simply not well thought out. In Mass., the consensus now is that woody biomass for thermal and CHP systems has a small carbon debt, even if one completely accepts the Manomet Report's assumptions. But, currently the only electric power biomass facility in the state is providing an extremely valuable service by being a market for low value wood which allows the best possible thinning of forests. I've been a forester for 40 years and most of that time I lived in a part of Mass. with no biomass market. But now that I live close to this biomass market, I can do far better forestry- that's a fact. Good forestry will encourage land owners to keep their land as forest rather than developing it- and keeping forest as forest should be a primary goal, even if the forests aren't left alone forever- and, these improved forests add a great deal of economic value to the region, providing good jobs.

So, mindlessly repeating the mantra that "biomass is worse than coal" is an unthinking perspective- it's nothing more than a slogan.

kanaNov 1 2013 08:01 PM

good idiea

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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