Biomass Growth in 2014: Will the Trend Hold?

Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves discusses past and future growth trends in the biomass power industry.
By Bob Cleaves | March 12, 2014

Recently, an energy insider who has been in the business a long time asked me the following question: With all the recent development in the industry, can the trend continue?

I thought about it for a minute, and reviewed the list we put together of all the projects that came on line during 2013. It was a wide spectrum of projects, from the 103-MW Gainesville Renewable Energy Center to EDF’s twin 17.8-MW facilities in South Carolina. These were South Carolina’s first biomass facilities, and Virginia, Wisconsin and Georgia saw completion of first facilities as well.

All told, new biomass facilities in 2013 accounted for 627.5 MW, enough to power close to half a million homes and businesses. My friend observed that last year’s biomass growth was at least double the growth of any year in recent memory.

My answer to his first question was a little nuanced. Industry growth won’t continue at the same pace every year for the foreseeable future. That’s just not realistic, nor is it sustainable. However, there are several indicators that support a long-term biomass growth outlook:

• Inconsistency of gas prices. During the nationwide cold snap throughout January, the value of biomass has really come into focus in places like New England. While energy prices skyrocketed due to high demand, fossil fuels weren’t able to keep up. Biomass power became an essential resource, and without it, prices would have spiked even higher. Biomass will never be the primary energy source for any region of the country, but the polar vortex showed us that it is a reliable backup plan during severe weather.

• A new emphasis on forestry and better forest maintenance. The USDA and U.S. Forest Service are increasingly acknowledging the significant benefits of—and even urgent need for—consistent and thorough forest maintenance. Of course, forest maintenance comes with a byproduct, forest trimmings, that must be disposed of somehow. Luckily, biomass offers a productive outlet for these materials. Rather than open burning or landfilling them, trimmings can be used to produce clean energy. Add to this the mountains of research that have come out recently on the benefits of forest maintenance. For instance, University of California, Berkeley, forester Bill Stewart found that forest management, despite its removal of carbon stocks from a forest, does nothing to reduce that forest’s overall carbon content over the long term. Findings like this support a large-scale commitment to improved forestry, which can only benefit the biomass industry.

• Biomass sustainability and benefits are consistently reinforced by science. After beginning a conversion project of four facilities in Northern Canada from coal to biomass, Ontario Power Generation conducted a study with the Pembina Institute to “determine if biomass sourced from Ontario’s forests would be renewable; to better understand the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction benefits of biomass; and to estimate the socioeconomic benefits that would result from electricity production from biomass.” What they found was remarkable: When practicing sustainable forestry, the carbon supply of the forest was not reduced, even when factoring in the use of 2 million tons of wood pellets each year for biomass. Beyond sustainability, biomass was found to be a major boon to reducing GHG emissions: “Averaged over the period, there is an 80 percent reduction in GHG emissions for biomass compared to the base case of natural gas electricity.”

My answer to my friend’s second question was an unequivocal, “No.” I am not pessimistic at all about biomass growth. On the contrary, I think last year's new projects, combined with renewed support from science and government sources, signal an overall move toward embracing sensible biomass facilities. In other words, where they make sense relative to available forest and urban wood residues. For all of these reasons, biomass is here to stay.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association