A new year is upon us and the renewable energy community, like most industries impacted by federal energy and natural resource policies, approaches the coming year cautiously and with some concern. Biomass energy faced an uncertain future before the U.S. elections in November. Will its prospects improve as President Trump begins his tenure as commander and chief?
It is possible to anticipate at least a portion of the future through consideration of the past. For the U.S. biomass industry, the past has been one of harder times than experienced by solar and wind; the way forward is likely to present more of the same. Mother Goose may well have had the biomass industry in mind when she wrote:
Wednesday’s child is full of woe, Thursday’s child has far to go…. Saturday’s child works hard or a living…
Of all renewable sources of heat and power, bioenergy is the largest contributor. Unlike solar and wind, bioenergy draws from a ubiquitous pool of feedstocks — ranging from forestry and agricultural residues to urban waste. According to the Renewable Energy Network for the 21st Century “total energy demand supplied from biomass in 2015 was approximately 60 exajoules. The [global] use of biomass for energy has been growing at around 2 percent per year since 2010.”
Residual by-products from farming, forestry and construction are not the only stuff of biomass energy. Woody and herbaceous plants, e.g. switchgrass, miscanthus, southern pine, sugar cane and sorghum, are grown specifically to fuel the conversion process.
The value of biomass energy is not just the power it produces. Unlike other renewables, biomass’ power comes in a variety of forms. Wood pellets — primarily composed of forest and agricultural residues — are directly fired to generate electricity and/or heat. Biomass feedstocks can be digested anaerobically to produce methane. Liquid fuels are also possible through biological or thermochemical conversion processes like pyrolysis.
Between 2010 and 2015, U.S. electric production from biomass trended upwards from 56 terawatt (TWh) hours to 64 TWh, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The availability of proximate feedstocks, e.g. southern pine, meant that biomass electric was most prevalent in southern U.S. states. However, all regions benefitted from biomass power. (see Fig. 1) Interestingly, more than half the electricity generated from biomass occurred inside the industrial fence — never making it into the grid.
Figure 1: Biomass electricity in the U.S. 2005-20015. Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The benefits attributed to biomass in its many forms are considerable. They include: conversion of waste into a commercial commodity; job creation; rural economic development; forest management; and, carbon capture and sequestration result from the growth/harvest/growth cycle.
Despite its many benefits, proven conversion techniques, variety of uses and continued leadership among other renewable energy sources, biomass faces a very uncertain future. The sources of this uncertainty are price, politics and questionable environmental benefits.
Currently low natural gas and petroleum prices are negatively impacting the pace of transition to a sustainable energy economy. Prices for natural gas and petroleum are expected to remain relatively stable and, as reflected in Fig. 2, will continue as the dominant energy sources of energy. Projections also show a rising trend line for renewables other than large hydro and biomass.
The cost of natural gas, in particular, is acting as an anchor to renewables. However, the precipitous plunge in the price of solar and wind has led to predictions that these two energy sources will continue to claim a larger share of the power pie. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance: “By 2040, zero-emission energy sources will make up 60 percent of installed capacity. Wind and solar will account for 64 percent of the 8.6 TW of new power generating capacity added worldwide over the next 25 years.”
For a number of reasons, the price of biomass energy is unlikely to follow the same downward path. Solar and wind are benefitting from massive economies of scale, serving to lower system costs, even in the shade of low gas prices. Other renewables have not been as fortunate.
One reason solar and wind are faring better in the commercial marketplace is their performance in the political arena. Federal tax credits and state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) have played a significant role in their rise to prominence.
Dylan Kruse, the policy director at Sustainable Northwest and an advocate of biomass energy, has summed up the situation quite neatly: “biomass hasn’t seen the same long-term, consistent incentives (as wind and solar power).” With the exception of ethanol, the political power of the biomass industry has not succeeded in carving out a place for their technologies — either in tax codes or in the folios of technologies that many states have pursued in efforts to speed the transition to a clean energy economy.
Enactment of the renewable fuel standard has earned ethanol its place in the sustainable sun. However, the environmental attributes of biomass have been continually questioned by clean climate advocates. Recent efforts by the biomass power and energy industries to have woody biomass declared carbon neutral by Congress have served primarily to stoke the fires of opposition.
Environmental advocates are increasingly calling into question the cleanliness and sustainability of biomass energy. Organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are on record as opposing the use of wood pellets both in the United States and Europe. The basis of their concern is the truth of the claim of carbon neutrality.
Figure 2: U.S. energy consumption by type (1776-2040). Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration.
NRDC’s position is, in its own words:
We’re…fighting to keep our vibrant forests from being cut down and burned as fuel. Not long ago, all bioenergy was considered to be renewable. However, burning trees not only destroys forests that provide homes for wildlife and help clean the air, but recent studies show it also creates more carbon pollution than coal, gas, and oil.
Advocates of woody biomass admit that burning pellets can in fact emit CO2, but point out that simply leaving wood waste to decompose or burning it in slash piles as a means of preventing forest fires also results in carbon emissions. They contend that using wood and agricultural wastes for energy creates value and serves as a stimulus to design and implement sustainable practices.
The argument for managed biomass sources is supported by other clean climate advocates including the Nature Conservancy’s Justin Adams:
How we manage our biological systems either releases or stores it. In fact, poor land use is responsible for at least 23 percent of global carbon emissions. But nature is already counter-balancing, absorbing 26 percent of emissions in our lands, predominantly in forests.
Significantly fewer concerns about the environmental impact of biofuels — apart from corn-based ethanol — have been raised. Demand by the defense department, shipping and airline interests continue to stimulate interest in these technologies primarily for their comparative cleanliness over fossil-based alternatives.
An Unclear Future
Biomass remains in the early stages of commercialization. As a class of technologies, biomass requires more by the way of political/policy support than either solar or wind. Emerging processes, such as hydro-thermal liquefaction (HTL) and aviation biofuels, hold much promise but require public funding of on-going research before they are ready for prime time.
Emerged biomass technologies, e.g. wood pellets and direct combustion, must overcome a host of environmental and political obstacles before widespread inclusion in a portfolio of commercially viable renewable energy options. Efforts to do so, however, require a combination of industry and government partnership in support of basic and applied research, as well as the creation of third-party certifications to calm the contentiousness between environmental and industrial opponents.
The Trump administration could prove an unlikely source of support for the biomass industry. The President and his core of policymakers appear more interested in reducing environmental regulation and increasing access to federal lands for the oil and gas industries than encouraging the development of new technologies.
The current price competitiveness, reliability and universal acceptance of solar and wind energy assures a smooth path forward for them. The ability of other renewably resourced energy technologies to prosper in 2017 will depend upon their capacity to overcome the known and unknown barriers that lie before them.