If you’re in the mood for a fiery conversation about the drawbacks of biomass energy, just sit down with ecologist Mary Booth.
As founder of The Partnership for Policy Integrity, her firm’s report, “Trees, Trash and Toxics” details all the ways that biomass exploits loopholes in renewable energy policy. As Booth explains, biomass power plants are seeing a surge in development in the southeast, due to subsidies and incentives for biopower as renewable energy.
Booth came to energy policy via a doctoral degree in biogeochemistry and plant ecophysiology at Utah State University, as well as a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University. She founded PFPI in 2010, after helping a group fight a water withdrawal permit for a biomass plant in Massachusetts.
Soon after, she says, “I started working with this merry little band of activists, scientists and lawyers to fight three large burners proposed in the state, that would have tripled the harvesting of wood, while treating it all as carbon neutral under state policy. But it takes decades for those trees to grow back.” Booth and her colleagues convinced the state to write regulations that removed renewable energy subsidies from large-scale biomass.
Booth, who is based in Massachusetts, recently spoke with Southeast Energy News about issues with biomass in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Southeast Energy News: You contend that biomass is not renewable, green or carbon neutral. Yet it’s getting subsidies and renewable energy credits.
Booth: This industry doesn’t want to admit to its real costs. There are fixed costs that mount up really quickly. Biomass is a low density fuel. When it’s green, it’s about half water by weight, and to generate the same amount of power as coal you have to move a lot more of it. Transport costs are sometimes double or triple what they are for coal. It is a very subsidy-dependent technology.
Though biomass is part of many renewable energy portfolios in the southeast—and Georgia, for instance, has the world’s largest biomass pellet facility, exporting 750,000 tons of processed wood pellets a year—it’s often as dirty as coal, and far more expensive.
Sometimes [biomass generation] is unsustainable, with power purchase agreements and costs passed on to ratepayers for as long as a quarter century for plants that are not making a profit.
And these facilities actually emit more greenhouse gases and conventional pollutants than comparably-sized coal and gas plants. That includes particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and smog-precursors like nitrogen oxides. The industry often takes shortcuts that shortchange the environment—from clear-cutting old growth hardwood, to burning pallets and construction debris that emit toxicants into the air.
Biomass receives subsidies based on the assumption that the fuel is renewable and clean. But your firm has found that often permits have unenforceable guidelines in regards to toxicants released into the air.
Booth: The Piedmont Green Power biomass plant in Barnesville, Georgia is a good example. We petitioned the EPA in 2015 because pollution limits set by the plant’s air permit were not rigorous or enforceable. But permits written in Georgia tend to be so broadly written they are practicably and federally unenforceable, and there is lax monitoring in part due to lack of resources at the state level. An enforceable permit will include, for instance, that you’ve got a monitor on your stack and are taking readings and if you get close to your yearly allowance you will report it and shut down.
The wood is trucked in on huge tractor trailers that can hold around 22 tons of wood each. A 50 MW plant burns 1.25 tons of wood chips per minute. You don’t know where that wood is from, and how much is chemically treated, pressure treated, or painted construction debris. They refuse to test their emissions. So the EPA looked at the permit and they agreed with us, but the new permit Georgia issued was like déjà vu all over again, it still didn’t ensure this was a safe plant. We had to submit a whole new set of comments.
You have also submitted several reports that say biomass power producers mislead their consumers and shareholders with their claims.
We have written three reports, one to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and two to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), with the gist being that the claims that biomass power producers make about this being green and carbon neutral are misleading to consumers and shareholders. For instance, we demonstrate that Georgia Power (a subsidiary of Southern Company) makes a number of misleading statements about the merits of green power. And Enviva Partners, which has plants in North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia, is also misleading shareholders with false claims about fuel sourcing and carbon impacts. We worked with Dogwood Alliance on this. Dogwood has extensively documented how Enviva is sourcing trees from mature hardwood forests found in the wetlands of North Carolina.
We are now preparing another report for the SEC that asks them to give concrete guidance to companies on how to talk about carbon accounting for all renewable energy. Companies have offsetting schemes where they pay to offset their emissions—such as paying a forestry company to cut fewer trees than they otherwise would, or pay them to set aside land to sequester carbon. Biomass itself is really an offsetting scheme: you say you’re burning these trees and emitting this carbon but new tree growth will offset it. Except the difference is that in real offsetting technology, there is accountability. There’s an identified plot of land, a transaction, a contract. But who is actually checking whether the foresters are planting new trees or just depending on natural regeneration?
How are ratepayers hurt by this?
Renewable energy credits (RECs) are funded by ratepayers. So when you pay your electricity bill you’re paying extra in RECs and the electric company collects that little bit of extra and reallocates it to all the renewable energy providers in the state. So companies might be collecting millions of dollars a year for energy that we contend is not actually renewable.
In some cases, ratepayers are on the hook for the next quarter century for with very tight margins that can’t compete on the market if cheap natural gas or wind power is available. They can’t make their power cost-effective and sometimes they have to shut down. This happened in Texas. And it’s happening in Gainesville, Florida, which is locked into an obscenely expensive power purchase agreement with their new biomass plant. Now the city’s utility company is trying to buy the plant as a way of saving $650 million over the lifetime of the power purchase agreement, which is going to cost them $1.2 billion.
Overall, the laws of physics being what they are in this quadrant of the universe, you are warming the climate with biomass. It is not carbon neutral and it is not renewable in the way that solar and wind power are. It’s an expensive way to generate power and it puts taxpayers and ratepayers on the line. The assumption of carbon neutrality for biomass is thoroughly baked in to a great deal of the modeling and policies for this sector.
Jill Neimark is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes for venues such as Science, Scientific American, Discover, Nautilus, NPR, Quartz and others.