In 2019, Kicking Biomass Out of the Clean Energy Club
Scientists tell us the climate crisis demands we act now and eliminate carbon emissions within 30 years.
Given this reality, burning forest biomass for electricity has no role to play as we phase out our reliance on fossil fuels. It became even more clear this year that burning wood for electricity should play no role in our low-carbon future. Thankfully, policymakers are beginning to see the error of their ways and weaning power producers that rely on wood pellets off the government dole.
Biomass isn’t a climate solution.
Per unit of energy, biomass power plants emit more carbon dioxide from their smokestacks than coal plants. And cutting down older trees and replacing them with saplings reduces the amount of carbon stored in that forest, even under a best-case scenario in which harvested trees are immediately replanted. This means it can take anywhere from decades to more than a century for biomass energy to begin to deliver any climate benefit. Even when biomass energy is generated by burning forestry residues—the leftovers from logging operations, like tree tops and limbs—the result is increased CO2 in the atmosphere that lasts for several decades. And we don’t have decades to wait.
…and industry claims about “sustainable forestry” are greenwashing.
“Sustainable forestry” may be based on ecological and other management considerations, but the approach provides no evidence whatsoever that biomass harvested for energy production is carbon-beneficial. Cutting trees for biomass when they would otherwise remain standing and growing—even when the cutting occurs on a “sustained yield” basis—will result in increased CO2 in the atmosphere for decades.
In fact, biomass electricity threatens wildlife and degrades forests at the very time we need to keep forests standing as carbon sinks.
To see how destructive for our environment and climate biomass electricity is, one needs look no further than the sourcing practices of Enviva, the largest wood pellet manufacturer in the world and supplier to energy giants like Drax Power. Significant and troubling evidence shows that mature hardwood forests in the U.S. Southeast are logged to supply Enviva. These investigations, supported by NRDC and conducted by our coalition partners and other local groups, also spotlight the vast quantities of the most carbon-intensive types of biomass, including whole trees, entering the industry’s supply chain. These unsustainable sourcing practices not only liquidate carbon stocks, but damage biodiversity in a region where the Atlantic coastal plain is designated as a global biodiversity hotspot.
Biomass electricity is also uneconomic compared to real clean energy alternatives…
A 2017 analysis of the U.K. power sector found that by 2025, Drax’s existing biomass plants will be more expensive to operate than building completely new solar and wind capacity even when fully accounting for the costs of integrating solar and wind into the grid. Meanwhile, a study that examined the economics of Dominion Resources’ biomass plants in Virginia likewise found them uneconomic to run.
…and require massive subsidies that should be going to genuinely non-emitting and renewable energy sources.
A November NRDC report found that 15 member states of the European Union, where biomass is erroneously treated as carbon neutral, spent more than €6.5 billion subsidizing bioenergy. What’s more, many EU countries spend a significant share of their overall renewable energy subsidies on bioenergy. Meant to promote real clean energy solutions like solar and wind, these subsidies are essentially wasted. On top of that, there are hidden subsidies in the form of energy tax or carbon tax exemptions. In Denmark, for example, these hidden subsidies totaled nearly 1 billion euros in 2017.
And burning forest biomass for electricity pollutes the air and harms communities.
Burning biomass creates air pollution that causes a sweeping array of health harms, from asthma attacks to cancer to heart attacks, resulting in emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and premature deaths. Wood pellet manufacturing likewise releases significant amounts of dangerous air pollution, often at levels in violation of plant permits and the U.S. Clean Air Act, and has resulted in multiple lawsuits against Enviva. Drax has also been cited for violating its air permit at its company-owned pellet mill in Mississippi.
For all these reasons, policymakers must rule out subsidies for forest biomass. And in countries where massive biomass industry subsidies have become entrenched, such as the U.K., policymakers must immediately redirect this financial support toward real clean energy.
In recent years, policymakers have begun to recognize that burning biomass in power plants is dirty, costly, and unnecessary. In 2018 the U.K. set a new, lower greenhouse gas emissions threshold for biomass power plants supported by subsidies. Then, in 2019, it said no other plants like Drax’s coal-to-biomass conversions will qualify for subsidies. [Sadly, the government also created a giant loophole for existing biomass plants, most notably for Drax, and maintains it will continue paying out existing biomass subsidies until 2027.]
And just last week at the COP25 climate summit, senior EU officials acknowledged that EU biomass policy was now out of line with the latest scientific evidence, in particular with respect to the assumption of biomass “carbon neutrality,” and stated that EU biomass policy would come under review.
Likewise in South Korea, where biomass energy has been increasing rapidly since a 2012 Renewable Portfolio Standard was established, concerns about the economic, climate, air quality and forest ecosystem impacts of biomass are also increasing. Over the course of the last six years, windfall profits for biomass producers have diverted limited government resources from other renewables, such as solar and wind, and disrupted markets for Renewable Energy Certificates. However, during the country’s National Assembly this month, representatives from government, state-run utilities, renewable energy companies and environmental groups participated in a seminar and recognized the significant environmental impacts associated with burning biomass for large-scale electricity generation.
Here at home in the U.S., it’s critical that policymakers do not repeat the same mistakes in adopting flawed policies based on discredited “carbon neutrality.” Administrations and agencies should reject forest biomass as a clean or renewable source of energy in plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
And North Carolina has done just that. In August, it issued its much-anticipated final Clean Energy Plan under Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 80, which calls for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The Plan says that, “North Carolina should not support activities” that burn wood for electricity, affirming a scientifically credible vision to keep forest-derived biomass out of our clean energy future. The state has sent a strong signal about the climate impacts of burning forest biomass for electricity and has correctly focused its limited resources on supporting true clean energy deployment.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress continues to be the laggard. In a sweeping end-of-year budget, they tucked in a notorious “carbon neutrality” rider, which calls on federal agencies to “reflect the carbon neutrality” of forest biomass in their policies, despite efforts by climate champions in the House to remove the rider from the spending bill. Congress also extended for one year the production tax credit for biomass facilities—an outdated policy from the 1990s that has unfortunately outlived the emerging science demonstrating that forest biomass is a climate polluter and has no place in the clean energy club. Moving forward, Congress must eliminate the carbon neutrality rider and remove incentives for biomass from renewable energy tax credits.