Good News for Forest Biomass

By Lisa Gibson | January 25, 2012

Many of us are growing tired of hearing about the Manomet study and are more than familiar with the assumptions that guide its debt-then-dividend forest biomass carbon emissions findings. They’ve been outlined and pored over in numerous credible studies, and are well-documented in our industry. But one more report deserves notice.

While not intended to refute the Manomet study, this report, “Managing Forests Because Carbon Matters: Integrating Energy, Products, and Land Management Policy” does address the Manomet findings directly. The new research confirms that forest biomass used for heat and power generation does not, in fact, release any net carbon. Undoubtedly one of the most exciting aspects of this study is its authors: forest scientists from multiple universities and organizations, including the U.S. Forest Service, a federal agency tasked with understanding and caring for our nation’s forestlands.

The Manomet study was done in 2009 by researchers from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. It was commissioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to evaluate the carbon neutrality of biomass for energy. The state had also implemented a moratorium on renewable portfolio standard qualification for biomass projects, to remain in effect until the research was complete and any appropriate subsequent measures were taken. Manomet concluded that forest biomass initially releases more carbon dioxide than coal per unit of energy, but pays off its carbon debt as forests regrow and that carbon is resequestered.

Based on the less-than-favorable study findings, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs ordered a swift change to the RPS qualification standards. The resulting Sept. 2010 draft of standard revisions severely hinders biomass power development through stipulations that are difficult to achieve. The final regulations still have not been released and are now more than six months overdue. The legislative limbo has caused a monumental setback in Massachusetts’ biomass power industry.

And Massachusetts developers aren't the only ones waiting on legislation. The U.S. EPA has commissioned its own study to determine the characteristics of biogenic emissions, deferring for three years implementation of its Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule for biogenic emissions, while the research is carried out. The EPA has also reluctantly rushed through the Maximum Achievable Control Technology Rules, and legislation currently in Congress would give it more time to completely overhaul them. 

It seems to me that in this time of regulatory uncertainty, a study by top forest experts should carry some weight.

Associate Editor Anna Austin explores the study for a feature article this month, starting on page 30. She talks to a couple of its authors about how they anticipate the findings might be applied. Associate Editor Luke Geiver also has pleasant news to report, in the continued success of a Canadian biomass district heating plant. See page 24.

All in all, this month’s issue is packed full of good news about successful applications and about what we know to be truth regarding emissions.