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Biomass Energy Fuels Debate as Federal Authorities Consider New Rules
Biomass Rules: EPA considering new rules for emissions from biomass energy plants. Experts debate the environmental impact of wood biomass.
By Lisa Monroe
Date Posted: 9/1/2014
Biomass Rules in Flux
EPA considers new rules for emissions from biomass energy plants. Experts debate the pros and cons of woody biomass.
Stakeholders including wood products manufacturers have been anxiously awaiting the EPA’s release of its accounting framework for biogenic CO2 emissions from stationary sources, which was expected this summer. But it looks like they may be in limbo a bit longer.
According to an EPA spokesperson, “The agency hopes to complete its analysis on biogenic carbon accounting for stationary sources by the end of the year. Presently, the EPA is working on revisions to the 2011 framework taking into account comments from the Science Advisory Board peer review and other stakeholders,” she said.
The framework, which has been in the works for three years, is expected to resolve questions about how carbon emissions from biomass energy production will be managed under the Clean Air Act.
In 2010, the EPA issued its greenhouse gas “tailoring rule” which treated biogenic and fossil fuel emissions the same way, but later deferred its determination on biogenic fuels for three years. The EPA deferral was challenged legally by environmentalists through the courts.
In early 2011, the EPA announced a series of steps to address the treatment of biogenic CO2 emissions from stationary sources, including a detailed study of the scientific and technical issues associated with accounting for biogenic carbon dioxide emissions from stationary sources. These are the emissions directly resulting from the combustion or decomposition of biologically-based materials other than fossil fuels.
The U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia later determined that the EPA lacked the authority to defer regulation of any carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. And in June, the Supreme Court partially overturned the Tailoring Rule and further defined EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act’s permitting program.
According to Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association, “The industry has been waiting on the EPA’s final guidance on biogenic carbon for a while now, and it’s especially important to know how EPA will be considering biomass as it moves forward on its plan to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants.”
“But what’s most important is that the framework is done right,” explained Cleaves. “We hope to see that biomass power from forest residues and other wood waste materials will be considered as highly preferable to power from fossil fuels, and we are optimistic that this will be the case.”
American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) members, who represent the pulp, paper and wood products industries, are among those relying on an EPA decision soon.
“It is important to us that it come out in a timely way and that it be soon. It’s an issue of great importance to us and many others,” said Paul Noe, AF&PA vice president for public policy.
That’s because AF&PA members generate much of their own energy through the burning of woody biomass – usually residuals of their own plant’s manufacturing processes such as sawdust and pulping liquor, which is formed when wood breaks down.
“Our member companies use every bit of materials they can to make a product. They do that to the extent they can,” said Noe. The material used for energy production is the material that’s broken down to the point that it can’t be used for anything else.
“We produce and use a lot of biomass energy…more than any other industry,” said Noe. In fact about two-thirds of all the energy used at AF&PA member mills is produced at the mills. And some members also sell excess power back to the grid.
Because of the Supreme Court’s recent decision, according to Noe, the EPA can only regulate GHG emissions when a facility triggers a closer look because of traditional permit requirements.
Earlier this summer, the EPA released what Noe said may be its most important regulation ever when President Obama mandated a 30% cut in carbon dioxide emissions at power plants by the year 2030. Coal energy is the main target of this rule which could be finalized as early as next year following a public comment period.
This should be a huge boost for biomass energy, which is not only a renewable energy source, but has also long been considered globally to be carbon neutral, said Noe.
“Globally it’s not been questioned that it’s carbon-neutral in other countries that have green house gas standards,” said Noe. However, in the United States, a debate began brewing about five years ago as to whether biomass energy production is really carbon neutral.
On one side, opponents of biomass energy claim it is not good for air quality, with some going so far as to claim it causes as much air pollution as burning coal.
One of the beliefs they’ve been most vocal about is that biomass power plants should be subject to the same emission standards set on plants generating energy from fossil fuels. They’ve also claimed that the EPA has unfairly shown impartial treatment to biomass energy plants.
Under current standards, biomass energy production plants only trigger a Potential Significant Deterioration (PSD) review if they produce 250 tons per year (tpy), while fossil fuel plants trigger a review at 100 tpy.
Taking issue with this claim by opponents, advocates for biomass energy point out that power plants run on biomass are subjected to the exact same PSD review standards as all other industries except four: oil refineries, chemical plants, steel mills, and of course, fossil fuel power plants.
Proponents fervently defend biomass as a viable and environmentally sound renewable energy option that is carbon neutral.
“What you’re not doing is using fossil fuels like coal. And it’s sustainable from an environmental and economic perspective as well,” said Noe.
Environmentally, it allows every single bit of a cut tree to be used right down to the sawdust and pulping liquor that is produced when the wood breaks down. These tiny bits would otherwise be discarded as waste, and would release carbon dioxide when they break down naturally anyway.
The question becomes, “Is it better for that to be used for energy or just disposed of?” he said. “What you’re not doing is using fossil fuels like coal.”
William Perritt, executive editor of the Wood Biomass Market Report, said the easiest way to meet renewable energy targets is to convert coal-fired power to biomass power, which is exactly what’s starting to happen at plants in Europe.
The export of wood pellets for biofuel is really at the heart of the biomass controversy right now, Perritt points out.
Some countries have already passed laws to increase the use of renewable energy sources. In the United Kingdom, for example, a law mandates a 30% increase in renewable energy by 2020.
About a third of this will come from biomass, with the country even offering subsidies to power stations that purchase wooden pellets from the United States. In Britain, however, this practice has recently been met with opposition from a group of American scientists, who are against trees in the United States being cut down to provide electricity across the Atlantic.
The issue is also being raised as to how much wood will be required to keep these plants running, and where will it come from. Also, when biomass plants convert multiple coal burners to biomass burners, they require biomass on a huge scale, which means at some point, they may not be able to afford to be as picky about the biomass content, which makes predicting the content of the emissions more difficult.
Not only is the use of wood pellets setting off alarms with scientists and environmentalists, but Perritt points out that wood pellet operations could present real wood supply issues for pulp mills and sawmills that use low-grade wood across the U.S. South, which is currently the primary source for wood pellets in Europe.
That’s because U.S. plants that produce wood pellets are going after the same pulpwood, meaning they create competition and can drive up wood prices.
Another problem that adds to the biomass controversy, Perritt explains, is the varying regulations from state to state. Around 30 states now have renewable energy targets with deadlines, and other states don’t have any.
Ironically, pulp and paper mills have been using biomass for combined heat and energy, which is biomass being used at its highest level of efficiency, for literally decades with hardly anyone paying any attention, said Perritt.
“They do a really good job,” he said. “It’s truly renewable and the fuel source is by and large a byproduct.”
Perritt believes that while biomass opponents tend to take a myopic view, biomass proponents need to do more to educate the public. “There’s a popular misconception that they’re going to rip down the forests to convert trees to fuel,” he said.
In actuality, high-quality wood isn’t going to be burned because that wouldn’t be economically feasible, much less environmentally sound. When trees are taken from a forest, the high-quality wood goes to making furniture and other more expensive items, and then lower-quality trees go to making items like low-grade lumber products such as pallets or crossties or pulp for paper mills. The residuals from production or bits and pieces that come off a log, such as bark and slabs, go into biomass fuel.
And ideally, there’s a good balanced market for every kind and part of a tree, he said. “The reality of it is that good utilization means using every component that comes out of the forest” and in the best case scenario, every part is being used for what it’s most suited.