The European Union’s misguided reliance on biomasss

From ToxicLeaks

Biomass background[edit | edit source]

Biomass fuels derive from organic matter, and are the world’s oldest known source of energy to humans. Even today it accounts for 8.9 percent of energy supply in the world (2014), especially in rural areas and the developing countries of Africa and Asia that rely on woods and charcoals. The definition includes agricultural products, food waste, manure, bioliquids and wood biomass products. The latter is used in advanced societies – particularly was wood pellets fueling energy plants in the European Union (EU) – as countries seek to counter climate change and lower carbon emissions using renewable energy.

What’s controversial about woody biomass is that it’s touted as a zero-carbon fuel, in a regulatory environment that’s favorable to the biomass sources when calculating the emissions and impact of combustion. Yet multiple studies including the landmark Manomet research in 2010 demonstrate that the “dirty” wood-based biomass generates more CO2 at combustion than coal, and factors in evaluating it that include waste sources, wood’s carbon sequestration properties and other offsets, don’t square the circle. Further debate questions if woody biomass sources are accurately defined as “renewable.”

Is woody biomass a renewable energy source?[edit | edit source]

Most renewable energy policy frameworks, including the EU, treat biomass as though it is a carbon-neutral renewable source. It’s a definition that rests on an assumption that, essentially, new trees become old ones and have absorbed, or sequestered, carbon across their lifespans – such that, when wood pellets or related biomass are burned after harvesting trees, they achieve no or low net carbon emissions at combustion. Sustainable forestry management practices to replace those trees promise to ensure that the resource is “renewable,” in that the wood (and carbon capture) is replaced. A troubling research discovery, however, is that not all “renewable” biomass sources can be treated equally.

The impact of clear-cutting forests in the American Southeast, for example, removes the carbon sink effect of old-growth trees, which are converted into biomass fuels that emit CO2 and particulate matter when burned. In fact, burning them results in more emissions than most fossil fuels. Yet using logging industry trees has a different carbon calculus than the woody waste products of the same industry, or naturally occurring waste matter on the forest floor. Those materials are differentiated still from waste products at mill or paper facilities downstream, like sawdust, which represents a true waste recovery.

Measuring biomass carbon emissions[edit | edit source]

One problem with the calculations is that reporting emissions from wood biomass, which accounts for most of the renewables consumption in the EU, is flawed. According to the Partnership for Policy Integrity, burning woody biomass is worse per BTU than burning coal. First, bone-dry wood rates emit 213 pounds (97 kilograms) of CO2/mmbtu, compared with 205.3 pounds for bituminous coal and 117.8 pounds for natural gas. Second, wood is rarely that dry; the typical moisture content of 45 to 50 percent requires inefficient energy spend to dry it, before the combustion process creates any yield. Third, in the United States, biomass boilers are mechanically inefficient compared with fossil fuel boilers.

The Manomet study relied on sophisticated modeling and arrived at a stark conclusion: Even after meticulous accounting for forest regrowth, the net emissions from using biomass to generate electricity at utility-plant scale are higher after 40 years than if it were generated with coal. When compared with natural gas energy sources, the net emissions were still higher than the fossil fuel source after 90 years.

Yet in the EU, accounting loopholes for measuring and reporting emissions mask the reality. A 2017 Chatham House study found that despite being responsible for several million tons of carbon emissions in 2016, the UK did not log any emissions from burning wood pellets because of reporting loopholes. Nor are they captured when exported from the U.S., or in other countries including Russia and Canada.

EU demand and regulation[edit | edit source]

In 2014, the EU published a report on biomass fuels and sustainability, meant to leverage the benefits while “avoiding negative impacts on the environment.” Subsequent nonbinding recommendations include forbidding biomass from deforested lands and other high-carbon stock areas, and verifying that biofuels emit at least 35 percent less greenhouse gases over their lifecycle. That includes cultivation, processing, transport and other phases of the biofuel when compared to fossil fuels. Beginning in 2017, new installations need to meet a level at 50 percent less, which rises to 60 percent in 2018. A February 2017 update on EU renewable energy practices notes the need to ensure sustainability of wood fuels.

Compliance, however, remains questionable in the short term. Perhaps the best news for combatting climate change in the EU and elsewhere is that woody biofuels – even with an accepted definition as a renewable energy source – achieve nowhere near the performance of solar PV and wind renewables.

Significant industry growth beyond 2020 is not anticipated as superior technologies overtake biomass in the EU. Those advances are also reflected in sustainability goals for Africa, Asia and other developing regions.