Biomass industry faces excitement and uncertainty


In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was putting off a decision on potential greenhouse-gas restrictions on biomass for three years. The delay was considered a big victory for biomass proponents and a loss for environmental groups.

Since then, biomass projects have continued to be built. The largest biomass plant in North America, using wood pellets, just opened in Ontario, Canada.

“A new era has dawned in Ontario; one where the air will be cleaner and the multiple costs of coal-fired generation have become a distant memory,” said Canada’s Minister of Energy Bob Chiarelli.

Biomass Magazine says demand for wood pellets is strong in European countries looking to move away from fossil fuel energy, and a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency says 20 percent of all global electricity could come from biomass – whether it be wood or other materials – by 2030.

Meanwhile, an $85 million biomass plant in Port Angeles, Wash., is set to become fully operational later this year. The Japan-owned Nippon Paper Industries cogeneration plant was dedicated last fall with 20 megawatts of capacity but never hit full production because of technical problems inside the boiler. Those problems have now been fixed.

The project upgrades the existing cogeneration plant, which has an antiquated boiler that uses biomass — woody debris such as forest slash and peeled bark — to produce only steam for the plant and is in use until the new boiler works.

Nippon, which produces telephone book paper and newsprint for the Peninsula Daily News and the weekly Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum, continues to employ about 200 workers and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said (mill manager Steve Johnson).

“The support out of Tokyo and senior management has been outstanding,” he added.

Even with all the industry progress, the EPA’s decision on potential greenhouse-gas restrictions on biomass plants is still due. Industry leaders expect the decision to come by the end of the year.

Bob Cleaves, President of the Biomass Power Association, wrote that all the momentum for the industry is great, but “all of this won’t mean much until the EPA definitively declares how it will measure carbon from biogenic sources. It’s a complicated question with what we think is a fairly straightforward answer: Biomass power produced from wood and organic residues should have a low-carbon value.”

A recent study by scientists published in the Journal of Forestry could help sway the debate.

David Garman, who served as under secretary of Energy under President George W. Bush, wrote this week in The Hill that the Journal of Forestry study factors in the positive impact to the environment when forest owners are able to maximize the economic viability of their land. If forest owners can sell their wood waste to produce biomass energy, they will be more likely to keep their forests intact and to also manage those forests well, Garman writes.

(T)he surprising and perhaps counterintuitive reality is, the more we value and use our forests, the more investment they will attract, the more acreage will be managed as timberlands, and the better our private forest system will perform in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by promoting vigorous tree growth, by storing carbon in long-lived wood products, and by providing low-carbon substitutes for fossil fuel. On the other hand, if the EPA limits the opportunity for private forest owners to use thinnings and residuals for energy, landowners will not only have less incentive to engage in proactive forest management, they will have less incentive to expand or even maintain their private forest landholdings. Should that happen, we will not only lose private forestland acreage, but the public environmental services they provide.

Let us hope that the EPA heeds the advice of these scientists.

Cleaves, of the Biomass Power Association, said the Journal of Forestry study “couldn’t have come at a better time” because of the uncertainty over the EPA’s decision.

Go here for a full description of the study’s findings.