Biomass Power: Stalled in the Market, Stalled in Washington

After flowering between 2008 and 2014, power from biomass has withered in the face of market forces. Furthermore, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have resisted regulatory action that could boost the industry.

On Sept. 26, 2017, Procter & Gamble commissioned a new biomass energy combined heat and power project in Albany, Georgia, owned and operated by Exelon subsidiary Constellation. Located on the site of Procter & Gamble’s paper manufacturing facility, which makes its Bounty paper towels and Charmin toilet paper, the 50-MWth plant burns forest wastes—tree tops, limbs, branches, and scrap wood—along with crop residuals including pecan shells and peanut hulls, and mill wastes such as sawdust.

The Procter & Gamble facility provides process steam to the paper manufacturing operations and steam to an 8.5-MW steam-electric generator at the Marine Corps Logistics Base nearby, sold to Georgia Power.

The first new biomass electric generator in five years, it marked a bright spot for an industry that has been facing a dim future. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) noted this year, “Expansion in electricity generation from biomass and waste has ended in recent years, after growing from 2004 through 2014 and in 2018 was 2% below its peak generation of 71.7 million MWh in 2014.” In 2018, about 2% of total U.S. electricity generation came from biomass and waste.

Carrie Annand, executive director of the Biomass Power Association (BPA), a trade association representing the forest waste generators, told POWER, “We have not experienced much growth in the last five years or so.” She said that’s due to a combination of factors. The first is the end of federal policy support. A federal production tax credit for biomass power, enacted in 2008, expired in 2014. “It takes five years or so to get these projects developed, so 2013 was a high spot.”

Market forces also contributed to the stagnation of the biomass power industry. “Power has gotten cheaper,” Annand said. “Utilities have chosen to buy power from other sources. Facilities in some places don’t have the stability they once did.”

Forest Management Benefits

There have been some positive developments, she said. One is in California, where a lack of long-term forest management has produced an incendiary environment (Figure 1), reflected in disastrous and fatal wildfires in 2017 and 2018. In the fall of 2016, a new California law (SB 859) went into effect to boost biomass electric generation. As Julee Malinowski-Ball, executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance, described it, under the new law, investor-owned utilities and large public-owned utilities must enter into five-year contracts for a portion of at least 125 MW of power from biomass facilities that generate electricity through the use of forest materials removed from specific high-fire-hazard zones.

biomass-power-plant-fuel

1. Dead trees provide dangerous tinder for California wildfires. That’s one reason the state passed a law requiring utilities to source a portion of their power supply from biomass-fueled facilities. Courtesy: Theresa McGee

The forest waste generating plants, not surprisingly, tend to be concentrated in states where forestry is important. The industry has about 80 plants in 20 states. That includes New England, California, the Upper Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Other biomass technologies include wood solids, black liquor, municipal solid waste, landfill gas, and biogas (see sidebar).

Biomass Technologies

Converting biological material into fuels, including generating fuels, offers varied paths. The key technologies are:

Wood solids. Wood solids are the largest component of biomass’ electric generating feedstock, accounting for 21.4 TWh in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). This sector represents residues from forest (Figure 2), lumber production and manufacturing, and paper mills, according to the EIA. The agency said, “The decline in wood solids electricity generation since its 2014 peak was highest in non-paper industries (25%) and lowest in the electricity industry (8%).” Direct combustion is best-suited to fuel with a low-water content. Wood solids account for 30% of the electric generation from biomass.

2. According to the Biomass Power Association (BPA), the biomass power industry removes more than 68.8 million tons of forest debris annually, improving forest health and dramatically reducing the risk of forest fires. Courtesy: BPA

Black liquor. The dominant chemical for turning wood into paper products, the kraft pulping process, patented in 1884, uses sodium compounds to break down wood, producing a byproduct, black liquor, that includes combustible residues including lignin, soaps, and other organics. Early kraft mills discharged black liquor into waterways, but it is toxic to aquatic life. In the 1930s, Canadian inventor G.H. Tomlinson came up with the black liquor recovery boiler and Babcock & Wilcox produced the first waterwall recovery boiler in 1934. The boilers not only generate steam but also recycle the chemicals (sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide) used in the kraft process.

Municipal solid waste (MSW). MSW provided about 20% of biomass-generated electricity (see “Waste-to-Energy: A Niche Market in Decline?” in the June 2019 issue of POWER). This sector consists of companies that collect trash, including combustibles such as paper and plastics, separates out metals, and burns the rest, either directly or converted into a refuse-derived fuel. These projects tend to be located in urban or suburban locations and several have faced local environmental opposition (assisted by national groups in some cases). Local opposition has caused a waste-to-energy project in Detroit to shift to gas to provide combined heat and power.

Landfill gas. Methane generated by decomposition of organic materials in a landfill—captured and burned to generate electricity—makes up about 16% of the power from biomass generation, according to the EIA. Landfill gas-fired generation, as is the case with the other biomass technologies, got a major boost from the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act, which opened the door for non-utility generators to sell power to electricity distributors. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, reciprocating engines are the dominant generators fueled by landfill gas because of their relative low-cost and high-efficiency designs, and size ranges that complement the gas output of many landfills.

Some biomass projects have attracted environmental opposition, although generally not on the basis of greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers biomass as either carbon-neutral or CO2-reducing (particularly landfill gas). The BPA says, “As organic waste decomposes, it slowly emits methane gas and carbon dioxide. Biomass power plants take advantage of this process to turn waste into fuel that generates electricity. During the electricity generating process, the methane gas is eliminated, and carbon dioxide emissions are greatly reduced.”

While BPA’s Annand said that the companies her group represents have not seen much organized opposition, in Massachusetts some 30 local groups have petitioned Gov. Charlie Baker to stop promoting biomass. The state has awarded some $3 million to biomass projects under its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). The groups sent Baker a letter outlining their opposition to biomass and support for legislation, H853, introduced earlier this year in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, that would remove “biomass,” “wood-burning,” and “garbage incinerators” from RPS eligibility. The letter states, “The Commonwealth should not be incentivizing technologies that will accelerate climate change, worsen air quality and use our forests for fuel.”

Democrat Denise Provost, who represents a district in Middlesex County (Boston area), introduced the legislation. She is the third-ranking Democrat on the Global Warming and Climate Change Committee. A preliminary hearing before a joint House-Senate environment committee took place in early May. Provost is not a member of that committee.

The Biomass Agenda in Washington

The biomass power industry has a pressing regulatory issue in Washington, one that it has been pursuing for 11 years. The industry wants electricity produced by biomass fuels included in the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), commonly referred to as “the ethanol mandate.” The RFS subsidizes transportation fuels that substitute for fossil fuels burned in cars and trucks. The EPA administers the program and has been stonewalling petitions to include electricity produced by biomass in the program.

Annand said, “If you power up an EV [electric vehicle] with biomass you are also replacing a fossil fuel source for transportation. The EPA estimates that using biomass power to charge an EV is 96% less carbon emitting than using gasoline in a traditional internal combustion engine.”

In February, three Washington, D.C., trade groups—the BPA, the American Biogas Council, and the Energy Recovery Council—formed a new group, the RFS Power Coalition, to push their cause at the EPA. They also petitioned the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to light a fire under the EPA. The petition says that when the EPA published its 2019 renewable fuel targets, it failed to include electricity. “The way we read the law,” said Bob Cleaves of the BPA, “the EPA is in violation of a congressional mandate to implement” the electric program.

The issue goes back to 2007, when Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, adding electricity to the RFS eligibility list. Seven years later, the EPA formally included electricity as eligible for credits (Renewable Identification Numbers, RINs in EPA-speak). Starting in 2015, electricity producers sent the EPA more than 40 applications. Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council, said, “That means 40 projects were developed, investors committed funding, and partners lined up to build new infrastructure using waste biomass to produce renewable electricity. But these projects sit dormant due to EPA’s inaction to administer their own program.”

Since then, no action. On its website, the RFS Power Coalition says, “Industries that are eligible for credits have thrived during the past decade, while biogas, biomass, and waste-to-energy have worked hard to stay in business.”

According to an article in the Washington Examiner, the EPA is getting pressure from independent and merchant refiners to stay away from the electric RINs issue. They must buy RINs in order to meet the standards, because they can’t blend and sell ethanol at the retail level to generate RINs themselves. The article notes, “That ability is possessed primarily by oil giants such as Shell, BP, and Exxon, which has increased volatility in the RIN market resulting in higher costs for refiners, according to the independent refiners.”

The EPA’s answer to the biomass complaints came in a November letter to Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who wrote to the agency to prod it into action. The EPA’s letter from William Wehrum, assistant administrator, said, “We continue to believe that the issues surrounding RIN generation for renewable electricity under the RFS program are not adequately addressed by our existing regulations and necessitate that these issues be addressed via regulatory changes. … We are currently not in a position to share a timeline for such work, due in particular to competing fuels policy priorities, but we will continue to engage with stakeholders.” ■

Kennedy Maize is a long-time energy journalist and a frequent contributor to POWER.