This week 41 leading scientists sent a letter the the Environmental Protection Agency calling on the agency to use caution when determining what biomass — wood or plant materials — to use for power plants. The letter states that burning trees to produce electricity increases carbon emissions and contributes to air pollution. Burning other biomass, such as perennial grasses or harvest residues that can either regrow quickly or are not needed for other purposes, is quite different from burning forests.
While the biomass industry argues that since trees grow back they offer a carbon neutral form of energy, recent research shows that burning trees for electricity is highly inefficient. An analysis from the National Resources Defense Council states that, “By substituting trees for coal, power plants avoid fossil-fuel carbon emissions”:
“But trees are approximately half water by weight, which means they contain less potential energy per unit of carbon emissions than coal and other fossil fuels do. In other words, to get the same amount of energy from trees as from fossil fuels, many more trees have to be burned, resulting in 40 percent more carbon emissions at the smokestack per unit of energy generated. And even if trees are replanted immediately, it takes many decades for a tree to grow and absorb all the carbon released from the burning of just one tree.”
The EPA is in the final stages of a three-year process of developing rules to properly quantify biomass carbon emissions from power plants burning biomass. In the letters scientists urge the EPA to establish a biomass regulatory system that is based on sound science and ensures adequate protections for forests and the climate.
The letter states that, “Doing otherwise at this juncture will fail the test of rigorous, science-based policymaking and could result in regulations that distort the marketplace towards greater use of unsustainable sources of biomass, with significant risks to our climate, forests and the valuable ecosystem services they provide and we rely on.”
The letter also expresses concern about the accounting methodology proposed by the EPA. For example, taking credit for forest growth that would be happening anyways, as is often cited as justification for claims about carbon benefits associated with wood pellets made from US forests, is an accounting error. The letter states that forests are carbon sinks, and diminishing them is the same as increasing carbon emissions, “consequently, a power plant that burns trees cannot be given credit for forest growth and carbon sequestration that would be happening anyway.”
According to the EPA, the US counts on forest growth to offset approximately 13 percent of the country’s total carbon footprint each year — the equivalent of taking more than 180 million cars off the road.
Power plants account for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon footprint. The Obama administration has made limiting carbon pollution from power plants the centerpiece of the its regulatory efforts to address climate change, with the EPA as the agency tasked with carrying out the initiatives. Addressing new power plant greenhouse gas emissions is EPA’s first step under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan announced in June.
A recent report from Biofuelwatch, called “Biomass: the Chain of Destruction,” highlights the human and environmental costs of biomass implementation in the UK. According to the report, large-scale electricity generation from biomass is a key element of the UK Government’s renewable energy policy, and is expected to provide up to 11 percent of the UK’s primary energy demand in 2020 — more than half of the country’s overall renewable energy target of 15 percent by that date.
In the report, Danna Smith, Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance, an environmental NGO that campaigns for the protection of forests and their biodiversity in the southern US, says, “there’s an assumption that there’s lots of regulation and forestry is therefore sustainably managed in the US:”
“This assumption is false. In the southern US, around 90 percent of forests are privately owned and logging practices are not regulated at all. Industrial logging is rampant with no real legal protections for biodiversity, watersheds, and local communities across the southern US.”
According to Smith, the UK is driving the expansion of the pellet industry in the southern US, especially when it comes to power plants converting from coal. The industry is projecting six million tons of pellets from the southern US alone to go to Europe by 2016.
Almuth Ernsting, co-Director of Biofuelwatch, sums up the situation as, “Biomass electricity in the UK = clear-cutting of ancient swamp forests + bulldozing of traditional communities’ lands + deprived UK communities bearing the brunt of toxic emissions.”