Biomass wood pellets Photo © tiero \ Fotolia.com

In the quest for sustainable sources of energy, we can anticipate the odd bump in the road. Some technologies appear unlikely to ever pan out (so long, cold fusion!), while others (oh, hi there solar PV!) look set to explode with unexpected vigour. Somewhere in the middle of the pack is biomass, which has been the energy supply of choice in developing countries all over the world, and has been steadily gaining ground in our modern energy systems as well. Biomass technologies promise to be a key player in the fight against fossil fuels and climate.

Loopholes in EPA regulations for biomass have created a veritable Wild West, where companies are allowed to emit 50 per cent more COthan coal plants.

And yet, biomass is also worse to burn than coal, if you believe a recent report written by the Partnership For Public Integrity (PFPI), and covered by Grist. According to the author of the report, Dr. Mary Booth, loopholes in the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for biomass have created a veritable Wild West, where companies are allowed to emit 50 per cent more CO2 than coal plants, as well as twice as much nitrous oxide (NOx), soot, carbon monoxide and volatile organic matter. And don’t worry; it gets worse. The EPA rules also blur the line between what is a biomass plant and what is a waste incinerator, with the end result being that biomass plants are burning a lot of wastes (including plastics, tires and contaminated wood waste), with little requirements to report emissions.

What is the cause of this unacceptable behaviour on the part of biomass plants? The report notes three broad categories of reasons: the inherent nature of biomass; the limitations of biomass combustion technology; and the overly lax EPA regulations that give biomass carte blanche. However, upon closer inspection it is clear that the main culprit is far and away the laissez-faire approach to regulating biomass plants.

While there are some inherent limitations of biomass due to its chemical composition, and technology can always improve (which it does), burning plastics, tires and contaminated waste wood is not a problem with biomass, per se, but rather with the regulators. To this end, the rhetoric of the Grist article and the PFPI report feel disingenuous. While ultimately the report calls for increased regulations, which are clearly necessary, it could do so without hating on biomass in the process.

One question worth considering is whether a similar situation could occur up in Canada. Strangely, it is quite difficult to closely pin down what regulations must be followed, as it appears to vary by jurisdiction. However, what is clear is that Canadian bioenergy plants can and do perform much better than the culprits singled out in Dr. Booth’s report. For example, the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) has operated a bioenergy gasification plant since 2011. Built using BC-based Nexterra technology, the UNBC plant has emissions lower than natural gas on many important indicators, and has particulate emissions 18 times lower than the average for bioenergy plants. In terms of other emissions, such as NOx, the UNBC bioenergy plant is slightly higher than natural gas but still well below coal. Clearly, better biomass systems are out there.

So do we have a burning problem with biomass on our hands? Blaming biomass in this situation feels tantamount to blaming dirty bathwater, when we should really point our fingers at the lax baby playing in it. Hopefully more research and better reporting can clear the air in this debate.

Kyrke Gaudreau is the Sustainability Manager at the University of Northern British Columbia. Dr. Gaudreau completed his PhD in social and ecological sustainability at the University of Waterloo where his research focused on the sustainability assessment of energy systems. He has consulted on various strategic and environmental assessments of energy systems in Canada, and has researched and written about energy systems sustainability in several different countries. 

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