The recent release of the latest IPCC report on climate disruption mitigation has attracted some attention for the potential – if not likely – need, given our unrelenting increase in carbon pollution, to turn to a suite of unproven technologies that are theoretically designed to be carbon-negative. Those technologies would, proponents claim, actually suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. One of these technologies is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
BECCS may work in Australia, according to one study. But could it work elsewhere? Is it sustainable? Could the natural resource base - forests that are harvested and other lands that are converted to biofuel crops - support BECCS without further ecological harm? Could trees be burned for fuel on industrial scale without hurting forest health or the ability of forests to regenerate?
Not, at least, in Penn's Woods.
When I was in state service at DCNR, I led the development of a carbon management plan for Pennsylvania (issued in 2008, and since removed - along with a large number of other carbon/climate-related documents - from the DCNR website, in a move that speaks volumes about the ideology of the current Administration). I also represented Governor Ed Rendell on the Chesapeake Bay Biofuels Advisory Panel, which did excellent work.
The DCNR carbon plan looked in detail at the issue of biomass energy. It found:
Under the most optimistic available projections for annual sustainable biomass supply (6 million tons/ year statewide), if all of that supply was harvested (ignoring availability and accessibility issues) and was used for electricity production, using in-state biomass for this option will offset 13% of existing electricity demand in PA. Similarly, if all of the estimated sustainable biomass supply (6 million tons/ year) was used for cellulosic ethanol production, 6% of PA‘s annual transportation fuel demand would likely be met with ethanol produced in-state.
The Commonwealth’s biomass resources and the potential sources of plantation biomass are diffused over a large patchwork landscape. Estimates of total biomass volume based on sustainability are likely to prove optimistic when accounting for management limitations and economic considerations (transportation, fuel costs, access, competing markets for low-value wood).
Market forces will determine the availability of wood and the impact on competing uses and users. The data...strongly suggest that the sustainability of large-scale operations that require huge volumes of feedstock annually is far from certain. However, a large group of locally focused/financed small projects spread widely across the Commonwealth could capture both the value of replacing high-cost fuel imports and significant carbon benefits while also limiting transportation costs of the feedstock. A local energy generation model has potential to allow displacement of significant quantities of current or projected fossil carbon emissions across a broad spectrum of users – industry, public institutions, commercial offices, and multi-family buildings – through reduced electrically-driven cooling, replacement of fossil fuel-based heat, and distributed generation of electricity through combined heat and power facilities.
Such an approach offers significant possibilities for decentralized, economically and environmentally sustainable rural economic development through community-based independent power production. Further, small-scale projects, when deployed across the Commonwealth, can cumulatively provide significant emissions offsets that are at least comparable to those that may be afforded by a lesser number of large-scale projects (e.g. cellulosic ethanol utilizing forest resources) while providing considerable co-benefits – energy independence (keeping energy dollars very local), taxpayer savings, rural economic opportunity, maximizing carbon sequestration in the local forests, and improved water quality, habitat and biodiversity. A detailed analysis of this model is beyond the work of [this report], but the concept merits serious consideration for policymakers, communities, energy practitioners, and energy users.
In essence, even with the development of plantations of short rotation woody crops to supplement forest harvesting, in a heavily-forested state like Pennsylvania, large-scale BECCS to replace current fossil-fueled generation capacity would almost certainly lead to large scale deforestation. We must grow - not harvest - the lungs of the planet. Forests are not fuel. And when it comes to biomass energy – with or without CCS – small is beautiful.