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New Study Confirms That Some Biomass is Dirtier Than Coal

Sami Yassa

Posted July 24, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming

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Today the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) released its report: Lifecycle Impacts of Biomass in 2020. The report analyzes the carbon emissions produced by burning biomass fuels.  The findings confirm what U.S. and European ENGOs have been claiming for the last few years - that burning forests to produce electricity is bad for our climate.

Until recently, burning biomass to produce electricity was widely considered an important "renewable" resource, along with technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal.  Many players looked to this technology as an alternative to coal that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Working from this premise, forward-looking policymakers in the European Union put in place aggressive renewable energy targets and generous subsidies for renewable technologies, including biomass in all forms.

But the emerging science is showing that not all biomass is created equal.  Some forms of biomass fuel, such as sawdust and bark from sawmills, construction wood waste, and dedicated energy crops, have the potential to reduce carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels. But other forms, most notably whole trees that are chipped and burned, produce more carbon pollution than coal.

Numerous recent scientific studies show that burning whole trees for electricity increases carbon emissions compared to coal and other fossil fuels for decades.

http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/doer/renewables/biomass/manomet-biomass-report-full-hirez.pdf 

http://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/publications/biomass-carbon-study-FINAL.pdf

http://docs.nrdc.org/energy/files/ene_13041704a.pdf 

And recently, 91 scientists from around the country urged the EPA to carefully evaluate the carbon emissions impacts of burning different types of biomass fuels, and put in place science-driven regulations that help clean up the biomass energy industry.

And now the DECC report confirms what these scientists and scientific studies have articulated: not all biomass is created equal.  The report shows there is a big difference in greenhouse gas emissions - depending on the type of wood used to produce the pellets and the way that it is sourced.  First, the report confirms that using whole trees to produce pellets increases carbon pollution compared to fossil fuels in most cases.  The study also identifies biomass sources that produce carbon benefits, such as sawmill waste (sawdust and bark) from mills in the southeast that would have otherwise been un-used and incinerated.

Taken as a whole, this report shows that both U.S. and EU renewable energy policies must distinguish among good and bad forms of biomass with accurate accounting.  These accounting frameworks need to assess the alternate fates and pathways for the biomass supplies – much like the DECC report does.

This need is now especially true here in the US.  Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of developing rules to account for “biogenic CO2”—the CO2 emitted when power plants burn biomass.  These accounting rules are part of Administration’s larger effort to control carbon emissions from power plants, a key component of the President’s climate plan.  Drawing these distinctions among fuel sources will be key to making effective policies to combat climate change.

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Comments

WoodyJul 29 2014 10:59 AM

The DECC report has obviously been “used” by both sides to bolster their position. The reality is that DRAX CEO is being “truthful” when she says that, as reported in the Financial Times, “Definitely some of our supply chain includes waste residues that would have been burned on the roadside.” But we both know that only a VERY small amount of the wood pellets that DRAX purchases originate from waste residues. Factually, “most” of them come from trees that could or would have been used for the manufacture of some other industrial product or left standing in the forest. The way to attack this is for the UK to insist that subsidized producers of electricity document the source of the feedstock for the pellets they consume. This “sustainability” criteria that is being touted by everyone is nothing of value. If they were required to certify that, based on the source of the raw material used to manufacture the pellets they are consuming, the product was, in fact, below the statutory quantity of 200kg CO2e/MWh, the whole charade would come to a swift end. West coast pellets manufactured from sawmill residues would survive, but anyone using pellets coming out of the US South would not qualify for any subsidy because they would ALL fail to meet the 200 kg threshold. Here’s a suggestion…take 10 pictures of loaded log trucks arriving at a pulp mill, an OSB mill, and a US South pellet mill and challenge anyone to tell you which is which without a caption! They are ALL THE SAME, simple fact.

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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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