With a new Congress coming to Washington next month, policy makers are presented with another significant opportunity to discuss, develop and implement a comprehensive, longstanding national energy plan. In any strategy aimed at meeting America’s soaring energy demand, biomass must be considered a principal among the several renewable, sustainable solutions that make up the fastest growing domestic energy sector since 2006.
Still, the development of biomass has faced technical and commercial barriers, requiring significant investments in research and development, as well as infrastructure. The federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which remains under assault in Washington, must be retained and protected to ensure the continued developmental progress of fuel sources produced from farm and forestry residues, and, increasingly, purpose-grown biomass.
While there also has been criticism in some circles over the environmental impact of using biomass as an energy source, the 25x’25 Alliance believes that developing biomass under the 25x’25 Sustainability Principles insures that it can be harvested and used in a way that conserves, enhances and protects natural resources, as well as be economically viable, environmentally sound and socially acceptable.
However, there still remains another critical and, unfortunately, longstanding barrier to the unfettered development of biomass as a key energy resource: the variation in definition among legislative approaches to utilizing this resource.
A recent report issued by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency charged with providing lawmakers background information pertinent to legislative issues, addresses the conflicts that have arisen since 2004 over how various proposals determine eligible biomass.
Biomass is basically organic matter that can be converted into energy. While most legislation involving biomass has focused on encouraging the production of liquid fuels from corn, other efforts to promote the use of biomass for power generation have focused on wood, wood residues, and milling waste.
For more than 30 years, the term biomass has been a part of legislation enacted by Congress for various programs, but U.S. consumers, utility groups, refinery managers, and others have not fully adopted biomass as an energy resource, attributable in large part to the varying characterizations of biomass in proposed legislation.
For example, the RFS, as updated in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, specifically cites the use of biomass feedstocks such as crop residues; forest thinnings and solid residue remaining from forest product production; secondary annual crops planted on existing crop land; separated food and yard waste; and perennial grasses including switchgrass and miscanthus.
However, that RFS definition renders ineligible those same feedstocks if they come from idle cropland, naturally occurring forestland, federal lands, or former industrial land that could be producing energy crops. Blenders and refiners have no incentive or requirement to purchase biofuels produced from those sources. It prevents millions of acres of farm and forestlands from contributing to the nation’s energy independence, costing rural jobs and income.
The restricted definition under the RFS also shrinks the environmental benefits available from forest biomass, including benefits to forests themselves from new investment in quality forest management. By excluding biomass from private forests as a tool in the U.S. clean energy strategy, the EISA definition negates a critical part of the solution to reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign, high-carbon sources of fuel.
In fact, the limited EISA designation is one of at least four different definitions of qualifying forest biomass in federal statute, including a broader, more inclusive classification in the energy title of the now expired 2008 Farm Bill. The farm law more broadly defines renewable biomass as organic material available on a recurring basis. It also allows use of “materials, pre-commercial clippings or invasive species” from national forests and federal land.
There is certain to be discussion in the new, 113th Congress about energy, and stakeholders are encouraged to read the CRS report and be fully knowledgeable of the issue. They can then be prepared to informatively reach out to lawmakers and use the upcoming debate platforms to pursue a full and viable definition of biomass for energy. The use of biomass as an energy feedstock is a sustainable alternative to address U.S. energy security concerns, foreign oil dependence, rural economic development and diminishing sources of conventional energy.