New Study Confirms That Some Biomass is Dirtier Than Coal

Today the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) released its report: Lifecycle Impacts of Biomass in 2020. The report analyzes the carbon emissions produced by burning biomass fuels.  The findings confirm what U.S. and European ENGOs have been claiming for the last few years - that burning forests to produce electricity is bad for our climate.

Until recently, burning biomass to produce electricity was widely considered an important "renewable" resource, along with technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal.  Many players looked to this technology as an alternative to coal that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Working from this premise, forward-looking policymakers in the European Union put in place aggressive renewable energy targets and generous subsidies for renewable technologies, including biomass in all forms.

But the emerging science is showing that not all biomass is created equal.  Some forms of biomass fuel, such as sawdust and bark from sawmills, construction wood waste, and dedicated energy crops, have the potential to reduce carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels. But other forms, most notably whole trees that are chipped and burned, produce more carbon pollution than coal.

Numerous recent scientific studies show that burning whole trees for electricity increases carbon emissions compared to coal and other fossil fuels for decades. 

And recently, 91 scientists from around the country urged the EPA to carefully evaluate the carbon emissions impacts of burning different types of biomass fuels, and put in place science-driven regulations that help clean up the biomass energy industry.

And now the DECC report confirms what these scientists and scientific studies have articulated: not all biomass is created equal.  The report shows there is a big difference in greenhouse gas emissions - depending on the type of wood used to produce the pellets and the way that it is sourced.  First, the report confirms that using whole trees to produce pellets increases carbon pollution compared to fossil fuels in most cases.  The study also identifies biomass sources that produce carbon benefits, such as sawmill waste (sawdust and bark) from mills in the southeast that would have otherwise been un-used and incinerated.

Taken as a whole, this report shows that both U.S. and EU renewable energy policies must distinguish among good and bad forms of biomass with accurate accounting.  These accounting frameworks need to assess the alternate fates and pathways for the biomass supplies – much like the DECC report does.

This need is now especially true here in the US.  Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of developing rules to account for “biogenic CO2”—the CO2 emitted when power plants burn biomass.  These accounting rules are part of Administration’s larger effort to control carbon emissions from power plants, a key component of the President’s climate plan.  Drawing these distinctions among fuel sources will be key to making effective policies to combat climate change.