Bioenergy – Is it Worth The Trouble?

As the nation turns towards renewable energy sources and utilities in many states must meet renewable portfolio standards, many people are exploring the feasibility of bioenergy.

Bioenergy could be used in place of fossil fuels for energy production in various ways, including burning biomass to generate electricity and using biological matter to produce vehicle fuel.

The question that many individuals, groups, state legislators and even the nation are grappling with is – what does “sustainable” mean when it comes to bioenergy?

In several states, the use of co-fired biomass in a power plant counts towards a utility meeting its mandated renewable portfolio standard goal. But most states that have passed such laws have few restrictions or guidelines about the types of biomass eligible for use or required standards of production and production models written into their laws.

Given that a renewable portfolio standard is being considered at the federal level, many groups have worked proactively to define what sustainable should mean in regards to biomass. In other words, they have put forth guidelines to define what types of biomass may be acceptable in hopes that such legislation would include stricter biomass / bio energy guidelines than most states have passed.

Examples of such guidelines (taken from a variety of national and international bodies) include:

-economic model is for production is viable for communities and encourages local wealth-building
-production does not contribute to climate change
-production does not result in air or water pollution
-grown within a framework of sustainable agriculture standards
-produced in a manner consistent with international human rights
-drawn from non-diminishing resources
-minimal human health impacts
-growth does not replace use of land for human food consumption
-production does not widen inequalities, globally or regionally
-the energy balance of the project is a net positive

…and the list goes on.

The potential for biomass to (a) replace land currently used for human food sources and (b) contribute to climate change are the two most consistent concerns found throughout these model guidelines.

In regards to the latter, while the use of bioenergy is far from carbon neutral, that is exactly how recent laws are treating them.

Scientists explain:

“Many international treaties and domestic laws and bills account for bioenergy incorrectly by treating all bioenergy as causing a 100% reduction in emissions regardless of the source of the biomass. They perpetuate this error by exempting carbon dioxide from bioenergy from national emissions limits or from domestic requirements to hold allowances for energy emissions. Most renewable energy standards for electric utilities have the same effect because bioenergy is viewed as a renewable energy even when the biomass does not eliminate or even reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” (Letter to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, May 17th, 2010)

These same scientists recommend that any system designed to address climate change must both account for bioenergy’s greenhouse gas emissions and tabulate emissions from bioenergy based on the source of the biomass.

These questions are difficult ones and the debate is happening now.

What do you think? Is bioenergy worth the trouble?

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.