Shattering misperceptions of biomass


Biomass plants are being built across the country, as more and more people discover the environmental benefits of burning woody biomass for energy. But it’s also clear that the biomass industry must respond strongly to threats that have appeared on the national stage in recent weeks.

First there is the state-sponsored Massachusetts study, which we wrote about here, here and here, that was misreported by the media but also had misleading statements of its own that could potentially hurt the industry.

Second, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently pulled its exemption for biomass plants when it comes to obtaining greenhouse-gas emissions permits. As this story notes, the EPA had previously considered biomass plants carbon-neutral, so permits weren’t necessary, but now the agency says it’s not so sure.

Both developments have led to some negative coverage of biomass in the national media, which makes it all the more important that the biomass industry — and all of us who support it — push back.

One glaring misperception that has somehow spread after the Massachusetts study is that forests are being cut down, or will be cut down, to feed biomass plants. It was good to see this week Bob Cleaves, the head of the Biomass Power Association, debunk a misguided editorial in the Washington Post. Cleaves’ letter pointed out that “it is irresponsible to imply that the biomass industry does or will ever engage in ‘chopping down and burning forest[s]‘”

We use scrap lumber, forest debris, agricultural harvest waste and other industry byproducts. We collect waste that would otherwise rot in landfills or on forest floors, contributing to forest fires.

Clearing forests to create energy is not an economically sustainable practice, as clearing costs would far outweigh potential energy gains.

The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., this week quoted the operators of a new Seneca Sustainable Energy biomass plant being built in its city, who admitted that the biomass industry needs to do more to spread the words about its timber practices.

With a little more effort, the company could have demonstrated that it doesn’t make financial sense to burn whole trees, said [Joshua Skov, principal with Good Company in Eugene, which performed an analysis on the Seneca plant.]

The wood products industry, as a whole, has not done a good job of explaining its business plan to the public, Seneca attorney Dale Riddle said, including the fact that it doesn’t want to cut down and burn whole trees to produce electricity.

“There can’t be anybody on the West Coast burning trees,” said Rick Re, sawmill general manager.

“It’s absurd,” he added.

On the EPA rule change, the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) responded strongly by releasing a letter written by 163 different organizations urging the EPA to change its mind and acknowledge that biomass is carbon neutral.

The NAFO this week also released its own statement asking the EPA to go back to its previous policy.

Each moment of delay jeopardizes existing and future investments in low carbon biomass energy that are essential to meeting our national renewable energy goals and reducing our dependence on high carbon emitting fossil fuels.

The potential impact of the EPA’s rule change is not just a national issue but would be felt in local communities around the country. The News-Review in Douglas County, Oregon, wrote an editorial this week saying that the EPA’s decision could imperil local biomass projects and “is the wrong decision, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. We support legislative efforts to have that decision reversed.”