Biomass: Getting to Renewable
Not all biomass feedstocks are created equal, especially when it comes to the definition of “renewable.” Existing legislation provides some guidance, but emerging sustainability standards will likely redefine renewable biomass.
Biomass has become a bit of a dirty word of late. While most agree that, as a form of energy, it represents an important alternative to fossil fuels, biomass (both for heat and power, and fuel) has attracted some serious criticism.
To date, most biomass legislative efforts have focused predominately on promoting the use of corn, soy, and other commodity crops to produce liquid fuels. The resulting food v. fuel debate coupled with lingering indirect land use change questions have tempered the hopes of even the most optimistic ethanol advocates, resulting in a growing emphasis on second and third generation “sustainable” biomass sources (e.g. non-food, cellulosic, and algae).
Biomass for power generation, on the other hand, has focused primarily on wood, wood residues, and milling waste, which raises concerns about deforestation.
Whether food v. fuel, indirect land use change, or carbon accounting, the criticisms have come from far and wide. Absent these issues, biomass would be a slam dunk.
Even so, in the face of sleeker and more clean-techie approaches to addressing energy security issues, foreign oil dependence, and diminishing sources of conventional energy — e.g. solar, wind, smart grid, etc. — many argue that biomass is not efficient (read “renewable”) enough. This relative inefficiency acts as an anchor on its increased utilization.
As the bio-economy grows, the question confronting the policy world is simply: whether biomass is renewable enough?
The trouble is, it really depends.
It’s the feedstock, stupid
Biomass is generally regarded as a renewable resource, but not all feedstocks are created equal, and herein lies the challenge. Accordingly, questions surrounding biomass’ ‘renewableness’ has serious implications for bio-based markets.
As regulations across the country impose aggressive RPS mandates and low carbon fuel standards, climate legislation worms its way through Congress, and the EPA steps up efforts to regulate greenhouse gases and implement RFS 2.0, it appears that other sources of biomass are set to take off, including: non-commodity crops, non-food crops, crop residues, wood wastes and byproducts, animal manure, and other sources. Many of these feedstocks appear to fall under the most pervasive “renewable biomass” definitions contained in existing legislation.
Federal definitions of biomass
Creating catch-all biomass definitions is tricky and results in confusion when assessing the virtues of various feedstocks. According to this report produced by the Congressional Research Service, a total of 14 definitions of biomass have been included in legislation and the tax code since 2004.
Title IX of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (the Farm Bill) and Title II of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) both contain extensive definitions of renewable biomass, but each defines the term differently.
Generally speaking, for feedstocks to fall within the category of renewable biomass in both bills, it must be an infinite feedstock that may be replenished in a short time frame.
The Farm Bill focuses on invasive species and trimmings from public lands and organic matter available on a recurring basis, waste materials, and byproducts available on non-federal lands.
EISA prohibits the removal of biomass from federal lands, but includes (for the purpose of Renewable Portfolio Standard eligibility): thinnings from non-federal lands, trees from actively managed plantations (both public and private), dedicated energy crops grown on nonforested land, waste, biomass obtained from the immediate vicinity of buildings, and algae.
The problem with biomass legislation to date is that policymakers have taken a piecemeal approach to defining biomass resources when responding to various challenges: energy insecurity (EISA), climate change mitigation (ACES and Kerry-Boxer), and rural development (Farm Bill).
While serious questions remain about how to characterize biomass energy so that the sustainable benefits and renewable properties are fully realized, a more sophisticated approach is needed in order to attract future investment.
Although sustainability standards are beginning to emerge, they remain voluntary to date (see Emerging Biopower and Biofuel Sustainability Standards). Biomass will continue to be an important component of any renewable energy strategy going forward and ensuring that its increased utilization has little impact on the environment will be of central importance in the future.