[OPINION] Renewability: Congress Confirms Biomass Energy is Renewable

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Renewability: Biomass Energy Not Renewable,” by Christopher Ahlers.]

– by Roger A. Sedjo, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future & Stephen Shaler, Director, School of Forest Resources, University of Maine

In a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation, the Senate just passed a far-ranging energy bill. Critics have quickly homed in on a unanimously adopted amendment recognizing the renewability and carbon benefits of biomass energy derived from wood and plant material. That designation puts biomass in the same category as wind, solar, and other renewables in the eyes of federal officials.

Critics claim lawmakers have gotten out in front of the science and that there’s not enough evidence to definitively prove biomass’s environmental benefits. They’re wrong. Science recognizes biomass is a well-established way to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Supporting biomass energy provides one more important strategy for fighting global climate change.

The Senate should be applauded. And the final compromise legislation with the House should preserve these amendments.

Often derived from bark, sawdust, treetops, and low-quality wood unsuitable for home building or furniture, biomass can be used instead of fossil fuels to produce heat and electricity, resulting in significantly fewer emissions than conventional energy sources. A recent peer reviewed study from the University of Illinois concluded that electricity derived from popular biomass products is 74 to 85 percent less carbon-intensive than coal-based electricity.

And that’s just one entry in a large and growing literature demonstrating that biomass helps reduce greenhouse emissions. Indeed, over a 100 of the country’s preeminent forestry experts recently signed a letter to federal regulators calling the carbon benefits of biomass “well established.”

Yet this designation in the Senate energy bill has been met with fierce criticism. Anti-biomass groups claim that biomass is environmentally unfriendly. The Washington Post complained that the Senate was “legislating science rather than allowing agency experts to make determinations.” The New York Times called for Congress to scrap the proposal and let the EPA make “make case-by-case determinations of neutrality…something it is much better suited to do.”

Such alarmism is deliberately misleading. The critics are willfully ignoring the environmental benefits of biomass presented in the science literature.

Using biomass for energy actually contributes to the health of our forests. Removing biomass from growing forests helps the remaining trees grow larger and remain healthy. It also helps prevent wildfires–themselves a source of CO2 pollution–by clearing out dense undergrowth that increases fire risk.

The extraordinary growth of American forests–a 50 percent increase in volume since the 1950s–is a major reason why biomass offers such significant carbon savings. New trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the total greenhouse gas emissions resulting from biomass. In fact, the net growth in U.S. forests offsets 13 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions annually.

Forest growth and removal data show that over the last decade, as the biomass industry steadily expanded, forest stocks in the American South–a key source of raw biomass materials–have actually increased by almost 1.2 billion tons.

In both the Atlantic and Gulf regions, smaller pine trees thinned from the forest–specifically to provide biomass fuel–accounted for just 0.03 percent of overall forest inventory. And for every ton of low quality hardwood removed for biomass energy each year, forests are growing an additional 2.45 tons of volume.

While it’s true that the use of biomass is growing in some areas, opposition groups are exploiting modest increases by using alarming, unrealistic future growth models that no one believes. Informed analysts believe that biomass demand will level-out and play a relatively small but important role as a trusty complement to wind and solar energy–a point that biomass opponents seem happy to leave out.

Biomass energy decreases the use of fossil fuels, improves forest health, and dramatically reduces carbon emissions. In other words, it’s precisely the sort of clean-energy option that those seeking real solutions to climate change should be proud to champion.

The Senate is right to recognize the carbon benefits of biomass energy. It is another important source of hope for bringing down global greenhouse gas emissions.

Roger A. Sedjo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future. Stephen Shaler, PhD, is the Director of the School of Forest Resources and Associate Director at the Advanced Structures & Composites Center at the University of Maine.

This opinion piece was originally published in The Hill on May 31 and was reprinted with permission from the authors. 

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