Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Biomass Power Slumps as EPA, Industry Spar on Science

A 51-megawatt biomass power plant in Hopewell, Va. (Credit: Ted Blanco/Climate Central) Click to Enlarge.
The industry that burns wood to produce electricity is floundering nationwide because of low power prices, and some lawmakers from heavily forested states are pushing to provide it with an extraordinary market advantage.

Six times during the past two years, federal lawmakers have included language in bills in attempts to force EPA regulations to ignore climate pollution from biomass power plants.

With the biomass power industry in financial tumult, its leaders are pinning hopes for revival on Congress’s potential willingness to interfere with science at a time when the EPA is rolling out flagship climate rules.

The legislative language, introduced by some Republicans in the House and Senate and by a Democrat-aligned independent senator, varies slightly.  But it all requires that most wood power be regulated as though it’s as clean as solar or wind energy — when it can actually be more polluting than gas or coal.

The persistent efforts, which have so far failed, are supported by America’s forestry sector. They have triggered anger from environmentalists, a veto threat from the White House, and derision from scientists.
The industry’s power plants are less powerful than fossil fueled competitors, burning chipped up nut shells, thin trees and other woody materials defined as “biomass” from farms, forests and mills.  Compared with fossil fuels, wood contains little energy and lots of carbon.  Producing a megawatt hour of electricity by burning wood releases more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning coal.
By electricity industry standards, America’s biomass power sector is a small one.  It provides some environmental benefits, such as helping farmers and forestry companies dispose of woody waste, while providing electricity from non-fossil fuel sources.  The costs of gathering the fuel makes it uneconomical in modern electricity markets, which has caused the sector to shrink.

A little more than a dozen of the 35 biomass power plants in California are currently idle, unable to compete against cheaper fossil fuels or cleaner alternatives.  Two of the six biomass plants in Maine stopped operating earlier this year.  A 45-megawatt wood-burning plant in upstate New York halted operations temporarily in the spring, citing financial woes.

And while the American biomass industry is a relative lightweight, there are fears that creating a loophole under the new climate rules could lead states to heavily subsidize it. That could help them comply with new EPA rules while stoking an industry that can harm the climate and damage forests as it grows.

That’s already happening in Europe, where national governments are providing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of green subsidies every year to power plant owners, helping them meet the high costs of buying wood pellets and burning them in boilers built to burn coal.

Most of the pellets being burned at a nuclear power-sized plant in the U.K. and at other former coal plants in Europe are being imported from North America.  The practice is fueling deforestation in southern U.S. states and hastening climate change while technically satisfying European Union climate rules.

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