Biomass Energy – Gaining or Losing Momentum?

Biomass is an energy source from organic material, such as plants, trees, or garbage. While seen by many as more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, biomass is not always considered a true renewable energy source.

According to this Renewable Energy World story, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has removed emissions limitations on biomass energy until a three-year study on carbon emissions impacts of biomass energy is complete. Bob Cleaves, president of U.S. Biomass Power Association, remains cautiously optimistic in this article, saying three years is a long time to wait to see if an exclusion to emissions requirements turns into investment incentives.

EPA’s action makes biomass energy more attractive for some utilities. Dominion Virginia Power plans a transition to biomass for three of its older and smaller coal-powered Virginia plants. Dominion Power plans to use excess timber and debris from logging in the area as biomass fuel.

Other utilities are hesitant to transition, preferring to wait until biomass regulations and restrictions are announced. Chris Namovicz, biomass consultant at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is quoted in the Renewable Energy World article as saying, “Companies are not going to want to make big capital investments until there is more regulatory certainty.”

Biomass is not without controversy. Some maintain a strong anti-biomass stance. The source of the controversy may be embedded within my biomass definition at the start of this blog post. While some see biomass as a positive alternative to fossil fuels, others believe biomass energy is not carbon-neutral, and should not qualify for benefits and tax incentives available for other renewable energies, such as wind or solar energy.

Still others consider biomass to be the opposite of a green energy source. The Biomass Accountability Project calls biomass, “one of the most expensive, inefficient, and polluting forms of electricity generation”. This organization is actively seeking Massachusetts to declare a moratorium on air permits for new biomass projects within the state. If they succeed in Massachusetts, other states could follow.

Maybe a new definition of biomass is needed. Union of Concerned Scientists is working on a balanced biomass definition, one that combines use of organic resources with safeguards protecting critical lands and our living and former-living resources.