High Stakes for Biomass in EPA Climate Regulations

The U.S. EPA's proposed rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, manufacturing facilities, and other stationary sources mark a pivotal moment for biomass technologies.
By Matt Carr | August 07, 2014

The U.S. EPA's proposed rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, manufacturing facilities, and other stationary sources mark a pivotal moment for biomass technologies. If done right, these rules have the potential to drive major investments in biomass for power, transportation fuel and other products. 

One key question is how the EPA will account for emissions of CO2 from direct combustion or fermentation of biomass. To fully realize the potential for CO2 reductions from biomass, the EPA must recognize and fully account for the carbon uptake and fossil emissions avoided through biomass substitution.

The recent release of the EPA’s proposed rules for CO2 emissions from new and existing power plants finds the agency again at risk of undervaluing the role of biomass, substantially hindering development of the technologies most capable of mitigating climate change. 

Without clarification from the EPA, these rules could leave many biomass technology providers on the curb, just as the single biggest environmental policy of this generation comes into focus. The agency's proposal to limit the emissions of new fossil fueled power plants will require the use of carbon capture and sequestration technologies. As written, this will affect primarily coal-fired plants, but in the future any carbon-emitting facility could be subject to this requirement.

The EPA's other proposed rule, which will regulate power generation from existing facilities, directs each state to come up with a custom approach to reduce emissions. By requiring states to lower the carbon intensity of their energy sectors, this rule opens new opportunities for biomass generation.  If implemented correctly, it could also create new opportunities for products derived from biomass grown, in part, from waste CO2 emissions.

Regrettably, the EPA overlooks the role of this particular process, known as carbon capture and utilization (CCU), that could reduce emissions, incentivize new technologies and boost economic growth.  This stems from the current view of waste CO2, as just that—waste.

The implications are enormous. If CO2 is not recognized as a possible feedstock, and if power plants are not encouraged to use their CO2 as such, the EPA's regulations will severely inhibit the development of a range of promising new biomass technologies.

The interpretation could also impact innovative CO2 reuse technologies like BioProcess Algae, whose greenhouses produce algae from the carbon dioxide that is a byproduct of ethanol production in Iowa.
Forcing the burial of waste CO2 makes about as much sense as requiring that all used cars or appliances be permanently discarded in junkyards, rather than recycled into new and valuable products.

In fact, the U.S.’s own guidelines (waste management hierarchy and Pollution Prevention Act of 1990) direct that waste be treated in a hierarchy of approaches that first emphasizes reduction, reuse and recycling. Disposal is seen as a last resort.

Reusing CO2 will also reduce the amount of the gas in the atmosphere—even if it is used to make fuels. Biomass-based products can displace their fossil-derived counterparts, in most cases with no performance trade off. What better way to sequester carbon than by keeping existing fossil carbon underground in the first place?

The products from these new technologies will empower consumers to live comfortable lifestyles without the harmful carbon impacts of past industrial technologies.  This new generation of products will give consumers a tool to fight climate change that they will gladly embrace, because it provides triple bottom line benefits—economic growth, social benefits and environmental impact.

We all have a stake in ensuring that the EPA or any other regulatory body is encouraging development of new technologies and approaches and not shutting the door on any new idea. The Algae Biomass Organization will continue to focus on educating policymakers on the importance of accepting CCU as a legitimate and preferred emissions reductions strategy.

Author: Matt Carr
Executive Director, Algae Biomass Organization