Transforming Energy Will Require A Biomass Movement
In spite of their rich history, biologically derived sources of energy like wood, grass, dung and alcohol have failed to ignite the public "buzz" of the other renewables: solar, wind or even geothermal.
Worse yet, for some, "bio" can conjure images of clear-cut forest land, dead zones in lakes and oceans, and choking carbon emissions — the opposite of sustainable development. In reality, bio-based energy has the largest market presence, involves the most stakeholders and has the greatest economic impact of any renewable energy industry sector, in the U.S. and around the world.
If societies expect to mitigate climate change, they must engage the broadest swath of renewable energy sources. Stakeholders whose economic interests connect to the biologic productivity of the land are essential components of any climate strategy.
Historically dominant renewable
Abundant, renewable and able to meet demand, biomass energy has been with humanity since the adoption of fire. Dwarfing all other global renewable energy sources, biomass (including wastes) provides 10 percent of fuel for energy production, according to the International Energy Agency. In contrast, hydro and all other renewable sources make up 3.4 percent of global production. Among members of the Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development, the biomass fuel share drops to 5.3 percent and other renewables increase to 4 percent.
In the U.S. in 2015, biomass energy represented 2.9 billion British thermal units (a measure of the heat content of fuel) as compared to the 2.3 billion Btus of all other renewables. Biomass is used for generating electricity from wood and wood waste, non-electric energy from wood (such as generating steam in industry and space heating), and producing liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.
The dominance of biomass is likely to wane, though. The costs of installing and integrating wind, solar and geothermal energy systems continue to drop. These platforms benefit from low operational costs and widespread public support. If the world is to transition from a fossil-hydrocarbon-fueled economy, continued expansion of these platforms and others is necessary.
Yet, technology advances alone are insufficient to mitigate continued anthropogenic climate change. More data is needed about the number of people whose economic well-being, livelihoods, aspirations and independence are tied to the energy transformation. The larger the population directly benefiting from this transition away from carbon, the faster and more effectively it happens. The world's climate is at a point where time and momentum are paramount.
Even with "big-tent" support for adaptation, externalities will still exist, including with biomass sources of energy. People will still have to address emissions, erosion, surface water degradation, and other direct and indirect collateral impacts of the transition. These effects are unavoidable.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is at the center of an emerging tent, and wields two powerful policy tools: the Clean Power Plan and the Renewable Fuel Standard program. If these game-changing policies do not cement a long-term role for biomass, including biofuels and wood burning in existing coal power plants, though, the tent shrinks significantly, and less public support in the U.S. implies weaker leverage at the global level.
The Clean Power Plan
Announced in August 2015 by President Barack Obama and the EPA, the Clean Power Plan would set achievable standards for power plants and customized goals for states to cut the carbon pollution that drives climate change.
In February 2015, a group of scientists who oppose some wood-fueled power wrote a letter to the EPA seeking to restrict biomass as fuel for electrical generation under the Clean Power Plan. In fact, biomass power scenarios are omitted in a U.S. Energy Information Administration analysis of the plan; solar and wind are modeled, but biomass is grouped in the "other renewables" category. However, 46 U.S. senators signed a letter to the EPA and other federal agencies in June 2015 endorsing treatment of forest biomass as carbon neutral fuel and, by extension, its eligibility to be an acceptable fuel under the Clean Power Plan. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists has offered a qualified endorsement of biomass based power.
In February 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked execution of the Clean Power Plan and returned its final rule determination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Twenty-seven states, including Wisconsin, petitioned that court for a stay on the final plan. The D.C. Circuit has begun to receive arguments, with verbal presentations to start in September 2016 and a final ruling expected in December. With the Supreme Court's stay, states did not have to submit their initial implementation plan proposals by September 6 as originally required; however, many (though not Wisconsin) are beginning to prepare them.
Throughout 2016, the EPA has held meetings and workshops, and issued requests for information regarding the treatment of biomass-derived fuels for power generation. In spite of these activities, a final decision regarding the carbon impact of those fuels and the eligibility of biomass power as a recognized renewable platform remains uncertain. No determination on biomass power is expected until the D.C. Circuit rules on the overall Clean Power Plan.
Consensus is not easily obtainable, but implementing the Clean Power Plan to exclude biomass as a sustainable renewable energy source ultimately will incur a greater global cost. In theory, greater demand for biomass could prompt poor land use that leads to deforestation and soil damage. However, established sustainable forestry and agricultural conservation standards can be used to establish monitoring and compliance systems. Forestry sustainability practices are widespread and accepted, and agricultural conservation practices have been tied to price support programs for decades. These established natural resource compliance practices require no new sets of rules, avoid attempting to reflect nebulous indirect land-use thresholds and varying definitions of sustainable practices, and do not impose all-encompassing carbon accounting. Tight restrictions on biomass energy, even if optimized in terms of carbon neutrality, prompts inertia, dispute and litigation.
The Renewable Fuel Standard
The Renewable Fuel Standard, a biofuel policy implemented by the administration of President George W. Bush, calls for U.S. consumers to use 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2022, an optimistic target in 2007-09 when the policy was formulated. The slow development of technology platforms, high costs and the current historically low prices of fossil fuels have many questioning the wisdom of this mandate. But the potential outcome of more limited targets for transportation biofuels is not clear.
From a casual observer's perspective, the dispute over liquid biofuels may seem to be a battle among giants: Big Oil v. Big Ag v. Big Retail v. Big Environment v. Big Finance v. Big Government, and so on. Given contemporary American politics and the residual effects of the Great Recession, these stakeholders can easily evoke popular ire.
Nearly all stakeholders were both pleased and upset about different aspects of the EPA's rule proposed in May 2016 to increase required ethanol blends for gasoline. The RFS for 2017 still falls short of statutory requirements sought by ethanol industry groups and would not meet the initial goals set by Congress.
The essence of the RFS is to provide policy certainty to stakeholders developing alternatives to fossil fuel products. Transportation fuels represent the largest single market for biorefineries. Fuel blending requirements (known as renewable volume obligations) establish a predictable market, in both size and identified purchasers. These standards greatly reduce the risk for biorefineries, ensuring those that can operate profitably, with prevailing commodity prices, can advance the technology, increase efficiency, reduce carbon intensity and provide jobs/markets in rural regions.
Without biofuel policy certainty, though, fewer investors and stakeholders committed to renewable energies will simply result in a continuation of the fossil-fuel status quo. Without stable policy, the development of bio-chemicals, other advanced products and more efficient transportation fuels is in doubt. A policy reversal would squander significant public and private investments into these technologies and supply systems.
Transition toward renewables
Pursuit of the "perfect" is not worth dispelling the value of the "good." Incentivizing the co-burning of wood will allow some coal plants to continue operating. But short-term costs such as burning wood from whole trees harvested in clear-cutting operations is worth the opportunity to slow climate change. Monitoring, evaluation and adjustments to the use of biofuels are necessary and warranted, and can be carried out with current compliance systems.
For the world to mitigate climate change in the time necessary to protect existing and following generations, the transition away from a fossil fuel-based energy economy must be pursued with enthusiastic participation of loggers, farmers and industrialists. A mass movement is needed, not an overly narrow approach.
Radical changes do not often occur without bumps in the road and mid-course adjustments. People closest to the land — the farmer, the logger and others — often tend to care most for it. These land stewards must be trusted without second-guessing their intentions and willingness to contribute to a solution.
Excluding biomass from renewable energy innovations, even in those cases that may lead to more intensive, short-term use of the land, is picking the wrong fight for the wrong reasons.
Tim Baye is a state energy specialist and professor of business development with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. This article updates an essay originally published by The Conversation. Per a disclosure statement accompanying that item, the author sometimes advises firms that may benefit from the arguments presented in it.