Report: “Unintended Consequences” from Biomass Boom

Report: “Unintended Consequences” from Biomass Boom  

- by Josh Schlossberg

Add another one to the stack of studies shattering the biomass industry’s illusion of carbon neutrality. One would assume that the scientific community’s repeated debunking of the alleged climate benefits of biomass would already have knocked the polluting energy source off its “green” pedestal. However, in a world where 97% of climate scientists attribute global warming to human activity and only 57% of Americans believe them, it’s clear that science alone can’t change people’s minds.

Despite science’s limited influence on public opinion, The Carbon Footprint of Electricity from Biomass: A Review of the Current State of Science and Policy, by Synapse Energy Economics out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, can be a valuable tool in the hands of biomass truth-tellers looking to strip the greenwash off bioenergy. In February 2013, study co-author Sarah Jackson presented on the findings of her and her colleagues, Jeremy Fisher and Bruce Biewald, at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon for the benefit of environmental and public health advocates.

Fisher, Jackson, and Biewald predict that an energy policy that pushes for biomass without honest carbon accounting “may result in large-scale perverse incentives and unintended consequences.” They urge the precautionary principle in regards to the expansion of industrial scale bio-power in the US and recommend a “clear and rigorous” carbon accounting to be undertaken on a yearly basis in a way that is “transparent, generalizable, and internally consistent.”

The paper delves into the “precept and assumption” of carbon neutral biomass by picking apart relevant aspects including land use, transportation and processing, and stack emissions. The report lays out the basics of the carbon cycle in relation to biomass energy, assesses varying perspectives of carbon accounting in the science, advocacy, and policy fields, weighs “the implications of those assumptions and postulate[s] which types of assumptions might lead to unintended consequence if implemented in full.”

An assumption of carbon neutrality “sets the stage for a massively perverse incentive” for biomass energy that could cause “large market distortions for both local and international feedstocks.” Further, an uptick in logging to feed a rash of new incinerators across the nation could “result in large-scale shifts of carbon from sequestered biomass stocks to the atmosphere.”

The study maintains that the current life cycle analysis of biomass “has been applied inconsistently” and often can “give undue favor to bioenergy.” The study authors “estimate that stack emissions from existing facilities are around 1.67 tCO2/MWh, or anywhere from 50-85% higher than emissions from existing coal plants.”

They caution against co-firing with coal, warning that coal facilities that might otherwise be shut down will be kept running to burn varying percentages of biomass, which could be “considered largely counterproductive” for limiting greenhouse gases. While focusing mainly on carbon emissions, The Carbon Footprint of Electricity from Biomass notes that “burning biomass generates a considerable amount of air pollution” including asthma- causing particulate matter and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds and can emit “hazardous air pollutants like hydrochloric acid (HCl), formaldehyde, dioxins/furans, mercury, and arsenic.”

Biomass power incinerators are “generally not as well-controlled as pollution from fossil-burning plants” the authors explain, and “can emit up to two-and-a-half times as much pollution as fossil fueled plants without any kind of regulatory review or permitting restrictions.” Instead of being a clean energy source, “wood naturally contains toxic constituents.”

Industrial heating is currently the largest consumer of biomass energy, accounting for 52% of total bioenergy use in 2011. Transportation burns up 26% of biomass, mainly from blending ethanol into conventional gasoline. Nationally, biomass power incineration makes up 10% of total biomass burning, amounting to 1.1% of total electricity generation in the US.

The paper cites the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s calculations of 2,600 megawatts of biomass electricity currently in the US, with the US Department of Energy forecasting another 1,040 megawatts over the coming years from proposed incinerators and facilities now under construction.

The Department of Energy also predicts that the consumption of forest biomass could double by 2030, primarily due to a “tripling” of wood use from biomass power incinerators and co-firing with coal. The US Energy Informational Administration estimates a “100-fold increase” in biomass co-firing with coal by 2021.

The “diversion” of croplands, forest products and natural forests to burn for bioenergy could spike the price of food and forest products, say the authors, while pointing out that “economics suggest that the day is not far afield when generators will start diverting paper and pulp production, or start replacing forests or agricultural lands with short-rotation woody biomass crops.”

A Wise et al. study from 2009 forecasts that energy policy which ignores carbon dioxide emissions from biomass could result in a future in “which unmanaged (i.e. natural) forests disappear completely by 2070.”

While it may seem obvious to anyone with a command of eighth grade earth science, one point routinely ignored by biomass boosters the world over is the fact that “any additional harvest attributable to bioenergy production necessarily results in less carbon sequestered in the ecosystem and more carbon in the atmosphere.” The paper also reminds us that shorter logging rotations for bioenergy means that forests “subsequently store less carbon.”

Flying a bit more under the radar is the concept of “leakage,” where competition for a limited wood source “drives up the marginal price” of pulp wood, forcing the paper and particle board industries to “increase their harvests to meet the new demand,” often by logging outside of the region. This on-the-ground reality ends up “undermining the CO2 benefit of the bioenergy.”

A Sedjo and Sohngen study from 2009 in reference to cellulosic ethanol policy concluded that biomass demand could spike wood prices by 20%, “diverting conventional wood products and driving wood production overseas.” Using forest “residues”—the tree tops and limbs that a forest requires to enrich soils and provide wildlife habitat—is iffy in the authors’ estimation as well, stating that “the economics of transporting this lower energy-density wood from logging sites to processing plants or generators may not be favorable without incentive.”

While pleased with the debunking of carbon neutral biomass, some biomass opponents are concerned that carbon accounting is simply another way to grease the skids for more incineration. Rachel Smolker, co-director of the US and UK-based Biofuelwatch, warns that the biomass industry is “already working on ‘standards’ that would enable them to do sham accounting and create an appearance of having resolved the problems.”

The biomass industry is “very skilled at working the numbers to their advantage, whereas anyone with basic understanding of ecology knows that carbon flux in and out of forests is extremely complex and not easy to control or measure accurately,” said Smolker. “There are so many obvious reasons to oppose tree burning for electricity—we do not want to get lost in the weeds counting carbon molecules.”

While applying a precautionary principle to industrial scale biomass energy “does potentially slow the development of bioenergy,” The Carbon Footprint of Electricity from Biomass: A Review of the Current State of Science and Policy maintains that “such precaution may be warranted.” The national Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, made up of over 50 organizations across 32 states, embraces the precautionary principle by opposing “all industrial, commercial and institutional burning of biomass and biofuels for energy.”