By Anne Stanton
An EPA final rule issued last week did not exempt biomass power from
greenhouse gas permitting requirements, sending a chilling message to
the biomass industry, the New York Times reported last week.
EPAs final tailoring rule was issued last week and determined which
polluters will have to account for their greenhouse gas emissions next
January when the agency begins to formally regulate the heat-trapping
gases with the permitting process under the Clean Air Act, wrote New York
Times reporter Robin Bravender.
What does this mean for biomass electricity plants? It means they are no
longer exempt from regulating their carbon dioxide. They can no longer
call themselves green energy, or carbon neutral, responded Elisa
Barrett, a conservation biologist and environmental scientist, who will
speak at the Traverse Area District Library on Monday, May 24, at 6:30
p.m. about biomass and carbon levels.
It also exempts them from receiving funding as an alternative energy
source from the stimulus money of 2009. Basically, the forward movement
of the biomass plants in Michigan are slowed and could likely be stopped
in its tracks.
The issue is especially relevant in Northern Michigan, where there are
proposed projects to produce a total of 192 megawatts of biomass power,
including plans for new plants in Mancelona, Gaylord, and Traverse City,
according to Skip Pruss, director of Michigans Department of Energy. Each
megawatt of power requires new growth from 10,000 acres of forested land.
Carbon emissions from biomass plants are claimed as carbon neutral, yet
burning wood releases the same level of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
as coal plants for the same amount of energy produced, according to an
October 23, 2009 Science article.
The growing abundance of carbon in the tropospherethe closest layer of
the atmosphere to Earthis blamed for global warming, which scientists
warn could potentially cause catastrophic damage to the planet unless
significantly slowed or halted.
The decision to not exempt biomass was cheered by Barrett, who believes
the EPA decision last week could have implications for federal subsidies,
which provide 30% of biomass plant construction costs.
When I heard stimulus money would be used for biomass, I was stunned. The
stimulus money was intended for alternative energy like solar and wind and
to upgrade the grid to make it more efficient so it can better utilize
these sources of power, Barrett said.
Biomass is growing in popularity across the nation because subsidies make
it the cheapest alternative energy. Biomass can also provide baseload
energy (electricity that is available 24/7 on demand) unlike wind or solar
energy, which is intermittent. Revamping the national electrical grid is
considered a high priority because its the only way to accommodate wind
and solar sources of energy.
Barrett testified in 2003 before the EPA in Washington D.C., urging it to
regulate carbon under the auspices of the Clean Air Act. In her
testimony, Barrett used air monitoring data to prove that catastrophic
human events, such as the March invasion of Iraq, caused carbon levels to
spike. In 2009, the EPA began regulating.
Supporters claim that biomass is carbon neutral, because a tree absorbs
the same amount of carbon as it releases when its burned. A big supporter
of biomass is the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO). Its website
explains the concept of carbon neutrality:
The EPA and the Department of Energy, through their own data collection,
have long recognized that biomass combustion for energy does not increase
carbon in the atmosphere. The EPA has concluded that there is a
scientific consensus that carbon dioxide emitted from burning biomass
will not increase CO2 in the air if it is done on a sustainable basis.
The United States is a world leader in sustainable forest management. As
a result, our volume of growing trees has increased by nearly 50 percent
over the last 50 years and each year our nation stores more carbon in its
forests than it releases from them. That is why energy from forest biomass
does not increase carbon in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, NAOF has pressured the EPA to exclude biomass combustion from
the requirements, arguing that the process is carbon neutral.
The question is, what is EPA going to do from here? said David Tenny,
president and CEO of NAFO in the NYT article. This sends a bit of a
chilling message to biomass producers.
Yet an EPA report acknowledges it takes hundreds of years for the planet
to absorb carbon from burning wood. Emerging scientific articles assert
that burning existing forests for energy does not lower carbon levels.
Replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy does not by itself reduce carbon
emissions because the carbon dioxide released by tailpipes and smokestacks
is roughly the same per unit of energy regardless of the source,
according to the October 23, 2009 Science article.
If unproductive land supports fast-growing grasses for bioenergy, or if
forestry improvements increase tree growth rates, the additional carbon
absorbed offsets emissions when burned for energy. However, harvesting
existing forests for electricity adds net carbon to the air. That remains
true even if limited harvest rates leave the carbon stocks of regrowing
forests unchanged, because those stocks would otherwise increase and
contribute to the terrestrial carbon sink.
Marvin Roberson, a forest ecologist for the Michigan Sierra Club outside
of Marquette, said that standing timber is the only foreseeable resource
for biomass plants in Northern Michigan.
Ive seen exceptions. In Grayling, theres a sawmill we do support that
makes dimension lumber, and they use their waste sawdust to produce energy
to power the plant. Thats great. Theres also a place in Grayling that
takes waste tires, which we dont think is great, and logging residues.
But the only reasonable source for getting 192 megawatts of biomass power
is standing timber and thats just a bad idea.
The EPA indicated that it would continue to seek comment on biomass
emissions and issue guidance on how to best reduce carbon emissions with
biomass technology, the NYT article said.
Barrett, founder of Earth Rescue, a nonprofit coalition of 250 scientists
and environmental leaders, said her talk on Monday will present scientific
evidence showing that trees are essential to maintaining a healthy
troposphere by sequestering carbon thats exhaled by a growing human
population. When trees die, they emit little carbon; they decompose into
soil, habitat and sustenance for bottom feeders. Burning carbon-absorbing
trees will upset the atmospheric balance and cycle of nature, she said.
As a point of order, the review of scientific literature completed in
2008 has proven invaluable and had clearly found a good definition that
limited biomass. Nowhere in the scientific literature was there an
inclusion of hardwoods or softwoods with the exception of poplar. The
issue as it manifested in Michigan has put use of biomass in direct
conflict with all research and scientific writing to date. The scientific
community never envisioned the use of trees for other than carbon
sequestration. With that reality, [EPA Chief] Lisa Jackson issued the
final decision regarding the tailoring rule on controlling greenhouse
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