Debate over Biomass’ Role Enters “Green New Deal” Fray

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2019

On January 10th, 626 environmental organizations sent a letter to Congress with a list of demands for a potential Green New Deal.  Among other things, the letter calls for reliance mostly on wind and solar technology in any federal climate change mitigation plan, and states that “in addition to excluding fossil fuels, any definition of renewable energy must also exclude all combustion-based power generation, nuclear, biomass energy, large scale hydro and waste-to-energy technologies.”

The idea of a Green New Deal — a Works Progress Administration level of federal support for a transition to a green economy — is nothing new. In fact, President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package contained the largest-ever investment in renewable, energy efficiency and low-carbon research, development and deployment. Ten years later, freshmen members of the 116th Congress, particularly Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), have brought fresh energy and attention to the urgency of a Green New Deal – one that both addresses climate change and the potential economic and jobs opportunities such a transition could spur.

Under the big tent of climate are differing opinions on what should and should not be included in an economy-wide decarbonization plan.  Reporting on this letter, journalists were quick to pick up that the letter was not supported by some of the larger environmental organizations. Though few of these organizations would comment, some stated off-the-record that the demands listed in the letter do not give lawmakers enough flexibility as they craft a Green New Deal.  Anyone who has watched the environmental movement knows that flashpoints over what is and isn’t renewable – including bioenergy – have the potential to fracture the debate over a sweeping climate policy.

In contrast to this declaration, energy scientists have encouraged lawmakers to be largely technology agnostic.  A review of 40 different decarbonization pathways, recently published in energy journal Joule, finds that as you reach deep decarbonization levels, say above 70 percent, it is critical to “improve and expand the portfolio of available low-carbon resources, rather than restrict it.”  The study also notes that while wind and solar are the most abundant renewable resources, balancing their variable rates of availability “can quickly become significant barriers as [wind and solar] … shares approach 100 percent of generation.”

Biomass use makes up about 45 percent of renewable energy consumption in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration’s 2017 statistics.  Of this, wood energy is 19 percent, biomass waste is 4 percent, and biofuels is 21 percent. Biomass energy as a total share of renewable generation will stay relatively flat or even decrease as other renewables, particularly wind and solar, continue to ramp up. However, biomass will certainly make an important contribution in hard to decarbonize sectors, such as heavy-duty shipping, aviation, as well as heating and cooling. Additionally, utilizing woody biomass resources can be right-sized for local communities to meet interrelated goals of forest health, economic development, and climate mitigation.

In October, EESI and Sustainable Northwest along with 86 organizations, released a statement on the importance of smart woody biomass utilization, noting that “From producing long-lived building materials that sequester carbon, to generating renewable heating, cooling, and energy in local communities, smart biomass utilization can support the interrelated goals of forest health, forest carbon sequestration, water and air quality, creating and maintaining jobs, as well as keeping forests healthy for Americans’ enjoyment and recreation.”  Additionally, while it has not been deployed at any meaningful scale, Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (commonly referred to as BECCS), is a common ingredient in most 1.5 and 2 C degree modeling scenarios.

Assuming that biomass won’t make up a share of the renewable energy mix far into the future is flawed. As lawmakers and Committees of jurisdiction look towards crafting meaningful climate legislation, sustainable biomass utilization will certainly play an important role in discussions.

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