Commentary: Why Pruitt’s biomass designation is bad policy

Advocates with the Our Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign argue biomass is bad for our forests, air, and climate — and uneconomic on top of that.

Adam Colette

Sasha Stashwick

Cutting down forests to fuel power plants is both incredibly destructive and expensive. In his essay defending EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s hasty decision to label so-called biomass energy as carbon neutral, Tim Echols doesn’t even pretend otherwise.

Echols starts his defense with a striking image of the damage done when a forest is clear-cut for fuel and then acknowledges that biomass is much more expensive than true renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Bizarrely, he still wants ratepayers to be put on the hook to subsidize it.

Echols and Pruitt are wrong on the science. A scientific consensus, including from the EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Board, has determined that all biomass is not carbon neutral.

He begins by giving the impression that the biomass industry only sources wood for pellet production by cleaning up “messy” forest residuals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each wood pellet plant typically has a sourcing radius of 50-75 miles. Years of on-the-ground investigations into Enviva, the largest pellet manufacturer in the U.S., have documented truckload after truckload of clear-cut, whole, hardwood and wetland forest trees being delivered to its facilities.

At the smokestack, burning this forest biomass for electricity releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than does burning coal simply because wood is such an inefficient fuel. Even under the best-case scenario, it takes decades of tree regrowth to make up for that big initial increase in climate pollution.

So, why support a patently false carbon-neutral designation?

In a moment of revealing candor, Echols’ acknowledges that “using biomass for a fuel source is now uneconomic compared to other choices.”

That’s one area in which we are in agreement. A groundbreaking study conducted by Georgia Institute of Technology and released just last week found that the cost of electricity from four biomass plants run by Dominion Power in Virginia is more expensive than 88 percent of power generation available in the regional energy market, including from wind, solar, and natural gas. Even the least expensive biomass electricity from these plants is approximately 50 percent higher than the cost of electricity from onshore wind and utility-scale solar.

Simply put, biomass-fueled power plants are not economic to run without massive government handouts. Policymakers and utilities in the Southeast should learn from Dominion’s bad investments and not make the same mistake.

Unfortunately for Georgia utility consumers, Echols seems intent on putting biomass industry profits ahead of the climate. Georgia consumers have already had enough experience with industry giveaways supported by Echols. They’ve paid for years into the problem-plagued Plant Vogtle nuclear energy project.

One thing Echols declined to mention is the damage the forest biomass industry is having on rural community health. A recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project indicates that more than half of the wood pellet mills in the Southeast violate the Clean Air Act. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the communities in which they operate have consistently elevated occurrences of respiratory illnesses.

Echols says that Pruitt’s determination returns the EPA “to its pre-2010 position.” But since 2010 the science has evolved — and so has Georgia’s energy economy. We now know that biomass is dirty, costly, and completely unnecessary, while solar and wind are the cleanest and fastest deploying technologies in the state. With that admission, Echols and Pruitt are planting Georgia’s future firmly in the past, when what the state needs is a genuine clean energy future.

Adam Colette is the campaigns director for Dogwood Alliance. Sasha Stashwick is a senior advocate with the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Dogwood Alliance and NRDC are founding partners of the Our Forests Aren’t Fuel Campaign.

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