Redefining 'Biomass' Would Better Meet GHG Reduction Targets

Welcome news for biomass advocates came out last week from the Brookings Institution, a prestigious, nonpartisan Washington-based policy think tank. They published a paper asserting that a small “tweak” to the federal statutory language defining “renewable biomass” could “go a long way” to help the United States meet its long-term commitments under the Paris climate change agreement.

The four renewable energy and forestry policy experts who authored the paper underscored the timing of their message by noting that the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan – considered a key factor in meeting ambitious emission-reduction targets – is currently on hold due to a court-ordered stay.

The authors posit that a slight change to the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) to define organic materials from federally owned forests as eligible “renewable biomass” that has the potential to substantially curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Renewable biomass is an energy source that can be used for heat, electricity or to power transportation through its conversion into biofuel. Energy from biomass represents close to half of all renewable energy production.

Advocates have long called for the inclusion of material from federal forests to qualify for renewable identification numbers (RINs) – credits that are generated when renewable fuels are sold into the marketplace. Fossil fuel entities can then buy or sell RIN credits to meet their annual renewable fuel obligation. So, the endorsement of the change by one of the nation’s leading think tanks confirms the common-sense approach to accounting for available biomass sought for years by those in the sector.

Since 2004, 14 different definitions of renewable biomass have been included in legislation and the tax code, creating a hodge-podge of uncertainty that impedes the optimal development of woody biomass as a strong source of sustainable energy.

As the Congressional Research Service pointed out in a report last year, how biomass is defined influences decisions about the types of crops that are grown, where they are grown, and potential impacts choices on preferred energy sources. Those opposed to including in the definition of renewable biomass material taken from federal lands claim the removal of material from those lands may lead to increased land disturbance, especially in the form of timber harvesting on federal lands.

However, those in the sector understand that the sound management of our forests can improve wildlife habitat, protect water quality and remove highly flammable debris from the forest floor, thus reducing catastrophic wildfires that emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases each year.

Waste from timber harvests, pre-commercial thinnings or wildfire fuel reduction treatments can be used as a substantial source of renewable energy and improve the overall carbon footprint of all domestic energy supplies. (Brookings analysts say that about 4-6 percent of the continental U.S.’s annual emissions come from forest fires, and healthy forestlands can sequester approximately 12 percent of the national emissions annually.)

The Brookings paper also makes the case that a change in the definition of biomass can promote innovation in low-carbon fuels. The authors note that biofuel production benefits from economies of scale, and that increasing the supply of biomass will promote further investment to encourage the development of more renewable energy, particularly cellulosic biofuel.

Lawmakers have an opportunity to make the nation’s woody biomass energy policy more comprehensive. The 25x’25 National Wood-to-Energy Roadmap offers the means to help “keep forests as forests” through proper legislative and policy incentives. Among the roadmap’s recommendations is the broadening of the definition of renewable biomass to include material from federal lands. A broader supply of woody biomass will make a major contribution to America’s energy future, while protecting and enhancing our private and public forests, ensuring the continuation of the supply of raw material for our forest products industry and helping us meet emission-reduction targets.

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