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Thursday, December 27, 2012

New report urges caution on biomass energy


A new report prepared by the Partnership for Public Integrity has raised serious concerns about Pennsylvania’s – and by implication, the rest of the nation’s - increasing use of burning wood for energy.


The PPI report describes Pennsylvania’s biomass energy sector as consisting of more than 60 sawmills and wood-related enterprises that burn wood scraps and sawdust from mill operations, as well as wood chips from forestry operations and land-clearing. There are 35 existing and proposed institutional and commercial biomass burners, including 12 “Fuels for Schools and Beyond” projects, and about 20 wood pellet manufacturing mills in Pennsylvania, with several more proposed.  

PPI says that demand for forest-derived biomass fuel and wood for pellet manufacturing in Pennsylvania is now similar in magnitude to the amount of wood converted to lumber and raises concerns about the impact of the demand for fuel wood on forests.

During my tenure at Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), I supported the Fuels for Schools program, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s work on biofuels.  But sustainability is key to biomass energy development, at least from the standpoint of supply of wood. Overharvesting of forest-based wood resources could do major damage to Penn’s Woods, harming soil fertility and ecological values.  So, several years ago, DCNR issued guidelines for biomass harvesting.  The guidance is just that, and as PPI points out, isn’t enforceable.

PPI raises two additional, critical cautions on biomass energy.  First, PPI’s report claims that burning biomass – and even wood pellet manufacturing – can emit large amounts of air pollutants, depending on the emissions technology employed.  These include particulate matter (PM), smog-producing nitrogen oxides (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOC), and carbon monoxide (CO). The problem grows if wood is sourced from construction or demolition activities, where wood is often chemically-treated.

PPI says that schools and other institutions that replace oil heating systems with biomass “will likely experience significant increases in local air pollution” – “PM emissions exceed oil emissions by a factor of seven, biomass NOX emissions are 1.5 times oil emissions, and biomass CO emissions are four times oil emissions.”

Second, PPI says that biomass facilities - often considered “carbon neutral” - emit more CO2 per unit of energy generated than fossil fuel facilities.  That is obviously troubling from a climate perspective.

PPI makes several recommendations for a “no regrets” policy for continued development of biomass energy and pellet manufacturing:

  • Additional scrutiny of potential air pollution impacts and enactment of additional pollution controls and air quality monitoring;  
  • Require forest regeneration activities to offset higher CO2 emissions;
  • Establish a rigorous testing program to ensure that contaminated wood is not used for pellet manufacture; and
  • Reevaluate the role of biomass energy in the state’s alternative energy portfolio, including withholding support for large electricity-only biomass facilities and restricting eligibility for alternative energy credits to small combined heat and power facilities that employ the best emissions controls available.

PPI’s report merits serious evaluation and consideration.