Biomass industry defends position as renewable fuel ahead of RED II (updated)

A new study from MIT adds to growing criticism of biomass ahead of RED II decision. The European Biomass Association (AEBIOM) and the US Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) have both taken out editorial space to make their case for biomass before the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) is finalised.

In a new study slated to be published in Environmental Research Letters 19 January, researchers from the MIT Sloan School of Management, University of Massachusetts Lowell and Climate Interactive, researchers have found that burning biomass emits more CO2 per kilowatt hour than coal. The researchers say these increased emissions stem from wood’s less efficient combustion and that the supply chain and processing for biomass are more demanding than those of coal.  To pay off this ‘carbon debt’ through the absorption of CO2 by respiring trees, the researchers estimated that it would take 44 to 104 years of forest growth, depending on the type of tree.

The study uses an interactive model (available here, an IPCC review of it is here) to predict the effectiveness of climate and energy policy.

MIT Professor and lead researcher for the study, John Sterman, says in a statement, “A molecule of CO2 emitted today has the same impact on the climate whether it comes from coal or biomass. Declaring that biofuels are carbon neutral, as the EU, UK and others have done, erroneously assumes forest regrowth happens quickly and fully offsets the emissions from biofuel production and combustion. One way to address the challenges raised in this study would be to count emissions where they occur, for example, at a power plant, and monitor and count carbon removed from the atmosphere by regrowth on the harvested land.”

Prof. Rooney-Varga, another author of the study, says: "We’re seeing many of the countries, states, and even institutions leading on climate embracing bioenergy from wood because they think it is ‘carbon neutral.’ Our analysis shows that these good intentions may be leading to outcomes that are bad for the climate: net carbon emissions that are worse than coal for many decades and, potentially, for the rest of this century or more”.

This research adds to the increasing debate over biomass’s place in the EU energy market, with fuel imports for biomass plants primarily coming from the US. 15 January, the USIPA took out sponsored content in POLITICO.eu defending the EU’s use of biomass and the US’ supply of the fuel. The piece presented a face to the industry, introducing Randy: “one of a new generation of lifelong U.S. foresters committed to using sustainable methods to provide Europe with renewable energy.” Combined with embedded videos from Drax, the largest burner of biomass in the UK (and who the MIT Study explicitly singles out), the article represents a consolidated effort to sway opinion.

12 January, AEBIOM General Secretary Jean-Marc Jossart wrote an op-ed in EU policy website EURACTIV.com only days after FERN produced a report condemning biomass for its effects on health.

Benedict McAleenan, head of Biomass UK (a representative of about 200 companies in the biomass supply chain), commented on the new research: “It’s vitally important to understand how economics and science work together in the real world. In this study, there are highly unlikely scenarios being modelled, which results in worst-case conclusions.” He added: “Responsible biomass sourcing is driven by a market that incentivises best use of forest materials. It works as a hierarchy, with bioenergy at the bottom. This study unfortunately doesn’t model that accurately and jumps to the worst possible outcomes.”

Countering claims that biomass will lead to deforestation, McAleenan says that both southern US and EU forests have increased their inventories over the past 50 years and 25 years respectively. He also concurred with what the USPIA says in POLITICO: sustainable management and harvesting of forests ensures that they remain forests.

Drax CEO Andy Koss agreed with McAleenan in his criticism of the research’s methods, and added: “Since Drax upgraded half of the power station to use biomass, those generating units deliver carbon savings of more than 80% compared to when they used coal. This takes account of our supply chain and is an independently audited figure.” This statistic comes from Ofgem’s Solid and Gaseous Biomass Carbon Calculator.

Both men emphasised the need to keep biomass as an essential feedstock for energy production.

In response to the criticism, Professor Sterman said: “We examined a wide range of scenarios in our study, including scenarios in which biomass is sourced from thinning.  Thinning is less damaging to the climate than clear-cutting, but still leads to significant initial increases in net CO2 emissions because regrowth takes time even if a stand of trees is thinned rather than clear cut.”

He went on to defend other aspects of the study’s methodology, saying that the research assumed the best case scenario for commercial forest regrowth, as well as not accounting for the possible lowering of coal prices due to the lack of demand from the EU, stimulating coal use elsewhere. Professor Sterman encouraged “a meaningful price on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions—no matter where and how they arise”.

“The EU has declared biofuels to be carbon neutral, which assumes that regrowth is certain and rapid.  Neither is true for wood.  Asserting by administrative fiat that biofuels are carbon neutral does not make it so, and, worse, encourages policies that may actually worsen climate change.  Proper emissions accounting would count the emissions from all sources of energy, whether coal, gas, solar or wood.  And for wood and other biofuels, offsetting reductions in atmospheric CO2 would be credited only when and if there is net new growth on the lands harvested to supply the biomass.”


By Luke Acton

This article was updated 9:30 18/01/2018 with comments from Professor John Sternam defending the methodology of the academic paper 'Does replacing coal with wood lower CO2 emissions? Dynamic lifecycle analysis of wood bioenergy'.

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