Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2017 Energy & Climate Developments
While European Union countries like the United Kingdom continue to burn forest biomass—primarily in the form of imported wood pellets—to produce electricity, analysis conducted in 2017 shows it’s a bad bet financially and for the environment, underscoring the dangers of Republican efforts to boost the domestic biomass industry by legislating biomass as a “carbon neutral” fuel.
The European Union’s (EU) climate and energy policies were up for heated debate in 2017 as the EU deliberated its Renewable Energy Directive recast (RED)—the policy package that will update renewable energy targets and subsidies in the EU’s 28 member states. While the EU’s existing policy is laudable for ambitious climate and renewable energy targets, it also enshrines a critical error: treating dirty biomass as “carbon neutral” and thus placing it on par with solar and wind as a zero-carbon electricity source. Since the RED was enacted in 2009, countries like the United Kingdom (UK) have spent billions subsidizing old, dirty, and highly inefficient coal plants to convert to burning wood pellets instead.
Together with close partners on the ground from London to Brussels, NRDC’s Our Forests Aren’t Fuel Campaign spent the year working hard to secure support for commonsense reforms to EU bioenergy policies that would keep the highest-carbon sources of forest biomass, such as whole trees, off the table and ensure that any biomass sourced for electricity is used in the most efficient applications that co-generate heat alongside power, not more industrial-scale electricity-only power stations. Burning these types of biomass in such highly inefficient plants, such as those of Drax Power, the UK’s largest utility and top importer of American wood pellets, will typically increase carbon emissions for many decades to compared to fossil fuels.
As NRDC’s carbon analysis showed, large emissions increases are a concern even if whole trees make up only a relatively small proportion of the total feedstock mix in pellets. It also means devastated forests in regions like the U.S. Southeast—ground zero for the wood pellet manufacturing industry and home to millions of acres of biologically-rich and vulnerable wetland forests known as bottomland hardwood forests.
Whether these reforms are adopted by the EU will be decided in the new year, but what’s clear is that the environmental community’s sustained advocacy is beginning to pay off in the countries that have invested most heavily in biomass, such as the UK.
The past year saw the UK government open a public consultation into a major biomass subsidy scheme with the clear goal of reducing government expenditures in support of the industry. The consultation came on the heels of NRDC’s publication of its Money to Burn II report, a follow-on to an economic analysis first published in 2016 examining the costs of meeting the UK’s new electricity needs with biomass compared to truly clean renewable energy, such as solar and wind. The findings were powerful: Not only can solar and wind be relied on to meet the UK’s new electricity needs as it phases out coal, but they can do so more cost-effectively than new biomass, even accounting for the costs of integrating solar and wind into the grid. The analysis showed that in 2025, the year by which the UK intends to phase out coal, biomass electricity will be more expensive than all forms of wind and solar. In that timeframe, it will be cheaper to build completely new solar and wind capacity than to run existing biomass facilities. If new biomass conversions were to be constructed, they would immediately become stranded assets.
Back in the states
These results also seem to hold true in the United States, where NRDC is analyzing the economics of biomass in Virginia and neighboring North Carolina with similarly compelling initial results. Our preliminary results show that in these states the cost of biomass exceeds those of solar, wind, and energy efficiency—by wide margins.
Unfortunately, at the federal level, rather than learning from the mistakes of their European counterparts, Republicans in Washington, D.C., continued their push to legislate the “carbon neutrality” of forest biomass as one of many anti-environmental riders in the current U.S. Department of Interior appropriations bill. The biomass language amounts to legislative interference with what should be a science-based policy and could significantly undercut our progress in reducing climate-warming carbon emissions.
Today, the numbers don’t lie: burning forest biomass for electricity is dirtier than coal and is uneconomic without massive subsidies. If the U.S. goes down the path of false “carbon-neutrality”, domestic biomass-burning could become cost-competitive with solar and wind, with impacts on our climate, forests, and the communities and species that depend on them as disastrous as those currently driven by EU policy.
The good news is that we don’t have to repeat these same mistakes. Meeting U.S. electricity needs via energy efficiency, solar, and wind is cheaper than ever and the science on biomass carbon emissions is clearer than ever. Getting biomass policy right the first time around beats cleaning up another “bio-mess.” Addressing climate change and supporting renewable energy means restoring and expanding our forest lands and more solar and wind energy. As 2017 made clear: biomass is dirty, costly, and unnecessary.