BPA Addresses Inaccurate Report

Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves discusses a recently released study that shines a negative light on biomass energy.
By Bob Cleaves | April 29, 2014

April Fools! We wished it was a prank when, on April 1, one of the industry’s usual detractors released a report that alleges—once again—that biomass is harmful to the environment, and, laughably, worse than coal. Rather than a scientific study, the report read as an 81-page editorial.

Unfortunately, many in the media were fooled by the group’s opinions and assertions that were presented as “science.” The report showcases a fundamental misunderstanding of the science surrounding forestry and biomass, and a lack of familiarity with the state and federal laws governing energy and the environment.

This report was not peer-reviewed, nor was it joined or supported by any credible national environmental organization. National environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council have endorsed the use of biomass from wood waste by facilities mentioned in the report, such as the Plainfield Renewable Energy.

And it’s not only environmental groups that are embracing biomass. Placer County Air Pollution Control District, home to Cabin Creek Biomass Facility, was awarded the 2010 Clean Air Excellence Award by the U.S. EPA for its public-private solution for keeping forests healthy while generating clean energy using biomass.

For an initial review, we took a close look at two recently permitted, very different type projects in California and Connecticut.

The Connecticut project, Plainfield Renewable Energy, is a $220 million power facility that uses wood derived from construction and demolition waste that would otherwise be placed in landfills. When complete, it will generate enough power for 40,000 households and account for 15 percent of Connecticut’s renewable energy. The project has strict fuel processing requirements designed to prevent the combustion of creosote or other nonwood materials.

From a climate perspective, Plainfield—and all biomass facilities—are a no-brainer when it comes to carbon, and vastly preferable to fossil fuel facilities. In 2009, PhD ecologists—from institutions such as Princeton, Dartmouth and UC Berkley—published an analysis of biomass carbon, “Beneficial Biofuel—The Food, Energy and Environmental Trilemma.” The report listed biomass fuels as “biofuels done right” because of their lower life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions profile, including municipal and industrial wastes, but also sustainably harvested wood and forest residues.

In calculating Plainfield’s CO2 emissions, and all CO2 emissions from the 81 facilities purportedly reviewed in the report, there is no attempt to analyze these emissions on a life-cycle basis. In other words, the emission calculations are simply what goes up the stack, ignoring the simple fact that carbon is “recycled” by a closed-loop process that takes carbon from the air in photosynthesis, resulting in the regrowth of plants. Because of this natural cycle, the science of greenhouse gases from biogenic sources like wood is undeniably and fundamentally different than the science of gases from geologic sources.

What about other emissions? This is where the Cabin Creek Biomass Facility in California, is particularly revealing. In 2012, the Sequoia Foundation conducted an assessment with technical assistance from the California Department of Public Health and in collaboration with Placer County Division of Planning Services and Department of Health and Human Services.

In California and throughout the West, wood waste material from forests is often burned in piles—causing uncontrolled emissions—or left in forests to become fuel for fires that threaten communities and ecosystems. Sequoia compared the fate of biomass if left to openly burn in piles or in forest fires versus the controlled combustion of the fuel in a biomass facility. This “alternative fate” analysis is completely missing from PFPI’s report, and for good reason. If PFPI had done such analysis, it would have come to the same conclusion that Sequoia reached.

Specifically, for regulated pollutants—the same pollutants discussed in the PFPI report—the Cabin Creek biomass plant, which used the wood waste that traditionally had been open burned, resulted in staggering reductions in emissions—95 to 99 percent. Similar reductions were confirmed by Placer County in a 2011 published, peer-reviewed report in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association.

In other words, far from being a source of “pollution,” biomass energy projects like Cabin Creek are part of the solution. No wonder the California Energy Commission describes biomass in its Bioenergy Action Plan as an energy source that “creates jobs, provides local energy, enhances energy security, and helps protect public health and safety by reducing waste materials and fire danger.”

We continue to review the report and collect its inaccuracies. Unfortunately, it is very easy to misrepresent numbers as true science. Anti-biomass groups believe they are helping the environment, but the end result of studies like this is that, if they are taken as fact, more fossil fuels will be used for power, rural economies will be hurt, and our forests will be in poorer health.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association