Next Wednesday offers renewable energy advocates an opportunity to promote a critical element in the pursuit of the 25x’25 goal. During the Third Annual National Bioenergy Day, nearly 60 organizations across the United States and Canada will participate in sharing with the public the wide array of benefits that bioenergy provides, including many on the local level.
“Bioenergy” is the use of any organic material, such as forest thinnings, residues, agricultural waste or urban wood waste, to generate electricity, heating and cooling. While biomass is a growing source of fuel for power plants, it also has been used for bioenergy to heat and electrify hospitals, college campuses, school districts and government buildings. Thousands of American homes and businesses have installed stoves and other appliances powered by wood pellets, reducing their heating costs. Working farms and other businesses with organic waste products recycle their “leftovers” to power or heat their facilities.
Bioenergy offers both economic and environmental benefits. It is responsible for sustaining tens of thousands of jobs, many of which are in rural communities where they are most needed. Of particular importance to stakeholders is the sustainability that bioenergy provides through, for example, the maintenance of healthy North American forests by putting forest trimmings to good use.
On an international scale, countries like the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Denmark meet ambitious national renewable energy standards, in large part, through densified wood pellets produced here in the United States that originate from low value wood gleaned from forest-thinning operations in sustainably managed forests.
Biofuels, of course, represent another significant form of bioenergy. With the advent of several pioneering biorefineries that use non-food feedstocks such as corn stover (stalks, leaves and stems), switchgrass and fast-growing willow poplar trees, biomass is quickly becoming one of the most promising renewable energy sources for transportation. DOE researchers are working to create new and better ways to produce “advanced” biofuels, which have at least half the amount of carbon emissions ‑ and in many cases, much less – when compared to gasoline, diesel, and conventional jet fuel.
According to The National Climate Assessment released in May 2014 by a consortium of a dozen federal agencies, wood is an abundant, sustainable, and local resource that can contribute to reducing our dependence on petroleum. While most Americans are familiar with other forms of renewable energy, like wind and solar, bioenergy from wood and wood-derived sources contributes to about 2.5 percent of our nation’s energy needs in 2013. In fact, according to DOE’s Energy Information Administration, about 23 percent of all renewable energy consumed two years ago was from wood ‑ more than wind and solar combined and second only to hydroelectric energy.
So, while the bioenergy sector has much to promote, policy issues at the federal level still pose challenges to the growth of this important industry. There remain many questions about how EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which calls on states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, will account for systems that generate thermal energy and electricity from biomass.
Certain types of “non-zero emitting” technologies, including “Qualified Biomass” ‑ defined as “a biomass feedstock that is demonstrated as a method to control increases of CO2 levels in the atmosphere” ‑ may join “zero-emitting technologies” in qualifying for credits and allowances. But as with other EPA bioenergy rules, nothing is straightforward and the multiple veils of uncertainty which surround the latest guidance make their interpretation extremely difficult. As a result, the future of biopower in the United States remains uncertain.
Elsewhere, a letter from 46 U.S. senators sent earlier this year to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the federal officials were called upon to eliminate unclear or contradictory signals from agencies that could discourage biomass utilization as an energy solution. They called for a comprehensive, clear, and simple policy establishing the benefits of energy from forest biomass and encouraging investment in working forests, harvesting operations, bioenergy, wood products and paper manufacturing.
25x’25 encourages renewable energy advocates of all stripes to get out next Wednesday and support their colleagues in touting the value of bioenergy to the economy and to the environment. But efforts must extend beyond a single day. Efforts must be sustained to convince policy makers and regulators that bioenergy can help bring about an energy future that creates jobs, improves our air and strengthens our energy security.