Massachusetts Moves to Tighten Biomass Rules Following Controversial Study

If you ever wondered how, exactly, a burning a pile of wood, AKA biomass energy, could possibly be carbon neutral (as has been long assumed) you’re not the only one.

Last week, the state of Massachusetts moved to impose new rules on the state’s biomass industry following release of a controversial study of the carbon impact of bioenergy.

Until recently, it was a common assumption that energy derived from burning biomass — organic material like wood chips or corn stalks — was carbon neutral, because the material would rot and release its CO2 anyway. The theory is that whatever greenhouse gases that are released during burning will be reabsorbed by that organic fuel source when it regrows. Of course, this assumes that the organic material will regrow.

Last month a widely-reported study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER), upended that assumption, prompting headlines such as “electricity from wood worse than coal.”

On Wednesday, Ian A. Bowles, the Massachusetts secretary for energy and environmental affairs acted on the conclusions of that report, asking the DOER in a letter to tighten the state’s rules on the use of biomass for power generation. The new rules threaten the livelihood of the popular renewable energy industry in Massachusetts, and possibly elsewhere.

The proposed rule changes include mandating combined heat and power biomass plants because they are more energy efficient; requiring renewable energy from biomass to have half the GHG emissions of “the most efficient commercially available” natural gas plant; and requiring that biomass fuel come from sustainable sources.

In the case of bioenergy crops, like switchgrass, that fuel would have to be proven to sequester more carbon than whatever would otherwise be growing on that cropland, according to the letter.

The biomass industry reacted strongly to the proposed rules. Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, told Biomass Magazine that the standards outlined in the letter seem to be “made up” as they go along and he is concerned that the biomass industry in Massachusetts might not be able to meet them.

Meg Sheehan, Chair of the Stop Spewing Carbon Ballot Campaign, said “this is a groundbreaking development that means an end to commercial biomass electric power plants in Massachusetts.”

The Stop Spewing campaign sought a ballot initiative to limit biomass plants to 250 tons of carbon emissions per megawatt hour of electricity generated, but announced it would drop that initiative following the proposed rule changes.

The Manomet study released June 10 found that burning wood for energy can result in an initial “carbon debt” because burning wood releases more CO2 into the atmosphere per unit of energy than fossil fuels (oil, coal, or natural gas). While that carbon debt can be eventually reabsorbed by regrowth of the fuel stock and turned into a “carbon dividend,” the study found that in some cases it would take as long as 90 years just to pull even with CO2 emissions from fossil fuels (specifically, natural gas).

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

2 responses

  1. There is a carbon debt when a forest is cut or a crop is harvested or land is cleared. In the case of sustainable forest management, regeneration is a requirement for use of the land/resources. The harvested area must be replanted at a certain density to ensure adequate regeneration.

    I have not studied this report in detail, but it sounds like an incorrect message is emerging. In a managed forest area, a plan is developed and approved by authorities to cut a certain amount per year. The amount will depend on the growth rate of the forest and the targeted rotation age. So you might harvest 1/50 or 1/80th of the total managed forest area each year.

    It is this entire picture that one needs to look at, the total managed forest – the forest in various stages of growth that is being managed for sustainable harvest. Some parts (recently harvested areas) will be emitting more CO2 than they are sequestering, while other areas (particularly those in the rapid growth phase) will be net sequesterers. We need to look at the entire area, not a single cut block.

  2. The report's focus appears to be much too narrow, thus providing an erroneous conclusion. I have been doing research in biomass long before being green became a fad and I can assure you that in most cases biomass power production results in a carbon surplus and not in a carbon debt. The report appears to fail to recognize that most biomass fuels would otherwise become waste products which would either decay into methane, in which methane is orders of magnitude more potent as a green house gas than CO2, or would become fuel for wildfires, generating CO2 but no power. In fact, one third of all the CO2 generated worldwide comes from wildfires. The point is that large amounts of biomass are generated anyway, which will eventually be burned in a wildfire or decay into methane, all without producing any electricity. Alternatively, if said biomass fuel were to be burned in a power plant, it would be burned cleanly and under control. Furthermore, wildfires also spread to healthy trees and wood buildings, thus interfering with the reclamation of CO2 by healthy timber producing trees. Applying a global focus to the carbon cycle issue results in dramatically different conclusions.

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