Webinar addresses woody biomass sustainability

By Lisa Gibson | May 24, 2011

Contrary to the belief of many anti-biomass organizations, sustainability is the key to responsible and economically viable biomass projects. The exact meaning of the word sustainable can be complex, but the ecological definition says it means remaining diverse and productive over time, according to Ed Gee, U.S. Forest Service woody biomass utilization team leader and moderator of a May 24 Biomass Coordinating Council webinar.

The event, ‘Sustainability and the Biomass Industry: Integrating Renewable Energy, Land Use, Production & Management,’ featured four speakers, as well as Gee. First, Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, debunked a few well-known myths about the biomass power industry, starting with the common charges of deforestation. “The notion that biomass power causes deforestation is a rather silly one,” he said. He went on to list more misconceptions, including a perceived biomass “gold rush” leading to environmental degradation; an incorrect assumption that biomass power gets several tax benefits; and a worry that biomass power plants will cut down valuable, merchantable trees, among other myths. 

“The facts are quite contrary,” he said. There is no such gold rush, he explained, and the industry depends on a healthy forest industry that sustainably maintains forest lands. “We can’t afford biomass right now, let alone merchantable timber.” Addressing the tax benefit myth, Cleaves said biomass power is the “poor stepchild of renewable energy” and in fact receives the fewest federal tax benefits of any renewable source.

One final major misconception Cleaves addressed is that biomass plants that run out of residuals to use as feedstock will turn to burning forests. “That is a fundamentally, economically irrational premise.” Closing his presentation, Cleaves said, “For those of you who enjoy making a cottage industry out of anything that doesn’t involve a wind turbine or a solar panel, enough with this nonsense.”

Following Cleaves was Catherine Mater, of the online database Coordinated Resource Offering Protocol (CROP), who explained the CROP tool and walked the webinar participants through a demonstration of its capabilities. It has been evolving since its development in 2005 and is designed to coordinate the U.S. biomass supply on public lands, she said. Mater emphasized that the free database is based on likely performance, not inventory. Users can search by a number of criteria including state, ranger district and tree species, among others. CROP also has a road access feature to determine how easily certain areas can be harvested.

Marvin Marshall, principal of plant nursery RPM Ecosystems, followed Mater and changed the focus a bit to securing a reliable feedstock supply from purpose-grown woody biomass planted on underutilized and abandoned land. He shared different agroforestry models for biomass including the use of timberbelts, which provide protection for the tree crops. He believes there are opportunities for small-scale growing operations that can provide a sustainable source of biomass for regional energy facilities.

Of course in discussing tree plantations, Marshall mentioned the USDA’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which provides matching payments to farmers. The speaker who followed him addressed the program, too, but pointed out the hardships it’s facing. “BCAP, which is a spectacular program, is being gutted on Capitol Hill right now,” said Michael Brower, senior federal policy director for federal project advice firm Mosaic Federal Affairs LLC. He also echoed Marshall’s point, saying purpose-grown trees such as shrub willow can be grown on underutilized lands.

Woody biomass resources in the U.S. are huge and diverse, plentiful and sustainable, Brower said. Biomass sustainability has a lot of moving parts, mostly because the material is in remote locations and needs to be transported to the users, he added. “Siting is the single most critical decision you’re going to make.”