Biomass: Not Carbon Neutral and Often Not Clean

Power companies, facing pressure to find alternatives to fossil fuels like coal, often consider turning to biomass – an umbrella term for fuel that is newly derived from plant matter.  Until recently, most people including policy makers assumed all biomass was clean and renewable.  But not all biomass is created equal, and our energy policies must distinguish among the good, the bad and the ugly. 

For example, as my colleagues and I have written about before (see here and here for starters), burning whole trees to produce electricity increases carbon pollution compared with fossil fuels for decades into the future. On the other hand, some forms of biomass can reduce carbon pollution and other emissions compared to fossil fuels. 

Regardless of the source of the fuel – low carbon or high carbon -  burning stuff is just inherently a dirty process. The combustion of biomass in power plants releases harmful air pollutants such as particulates, NOx, and SOx. So combustion must occur in plants with high efficiencies and state-of-the art emission controls.  This fact was underscored last week in a new report Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Bioenergy Has Become the New Coal released by the Partnership for Policy Integrity.

The study represents a significant new contribution to our understanding of the pollution impacts of biopower. Using data from biomass power plant permits, it documents the air pollution emitted by the biomass energy industry, and is an important reminder that poorly regulated biomass-fired power plants are an increasingly significant source of air and climate pollution and a threat to public health. The Partnership’s analyses are critical to our efforts to protect air quality, forest ecosystems, and the Earth’s climate.

I hope the report serves as a fresh reminder to legislators and regulators that bioenergy isn't inherently clean, renewable or good. Our policies matter and unless we set out standards high, we'll get a mess--biomess.