13 January 2011: US EPA accepts that not all biomass is good

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it will spend the next three years working out which biomass is good and which bad before including biomass plants in the air permitting system it has been operating since 2 January 2010. It is good news that the EPA accepts that some biomass is good in climate terms and some bad.

However, three years is a long time to study and consider this issue, given the urgent need to reduce emissions, but at least:

“The agency will also issue guidance shortly that will provide a basis that state or local permitting authorities may use to conclude that the use of biomass as fuel is the best available control technology for GHG emissions until the agency can complete action on the three-year deferral in July.”

(See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: New Source Review.)

The European Commission published some criteria on sustainable biomass in March 2010, but they are pretty weak and are, anyway, only recommendations to member states (see NewEnergyFocus: EU biomass sustainability criteria branded “spineless”).

Some European countries have made more progress on this, notably the Netherlands, which has outlined criteria. These are only voluntary at present, but there may be legislation to make them mandatory in 2011. The Dutch government is also telling the European Commission to set continent-wide criteria  (see http://www.biomassconference.eu/lectures/AS2_02_Ella%20Lammers%20Dutch%20initiatives%20to%20assure%20sustainability2.pdf).

The UK is, as so often, rather late to this discussion. However, the Environment Agency published a paper in 2009 outlining the advantages and disadvantages of different types of biomass. This noted that:

GHG emissions from energy generated using biomass are generally, but not always, less than from fossil fuels. For example, using short rotation coppice chips to generate electricity can produce 35 to 85 per cent less emissions, whereas using straw can, in some cases, produce over 35 per cent more, than a combined cycle gas turbine power station per unit of energy delivered.

How a fuel is produced has a major impact on emissions. Transporting fuels over long distances and excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers can reduce the emissions savings made by the same fuel by between 15 and 50 per cent compared to best practice.

“Land use change can negate any emission savings. Using formerly fallow land to grow bioenergy crops can reduce emission savings from a fuel by up to 10 per cent.

“Planting on permanent grassland is worse, with emissions savings significantly reduced and in some cases reversed.”

(See UK Environment Agency: Biomass: Carbon sink or carbon sinner?)

On the basis of this report, the Environment Agency called on the UK government to set sustainability criteria to ensure that unsustainable fuels are not used. The UK government responded with the inevitable consultation, but no actual action yet. The Scottish government has done better. It will introduce mandatory sustainability criteria for biomass from April 2011. It also recognizes that biomass should be used to provide heat, as well as electricity.

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