RELIABILITY OF RENEWABLE ENERGY: BIOMASS
Many Americans are looking to limit the use of fossil fuels, which has led policymakers to mandate and subsidize biomass-generated electricity. Biomass is organic matter such as wood, grasses, or crop residues that are burned to produce electricity, much like coal. Despite government assistance, biomass only generated 1.7 percent of U.S. electricity in 2014. In the Reliability of Renewable Energy: Biomass report, the Institute of Political Economy (IPE) at Utah State University examined the economic, physical, and environmental implications of biomass power to determine its overall reliability as an energy source. IPE found that biomass electricity production, in many cases, is expensive, inefficient, and environmentally damaging. As such, the costs of subsidies and mandates for the biomass industry impose higher costs on taxpayers and energy consumers with limited environmental benefits.
Biomass-generated electricity is typically more expensive than coal-generated electricity, so governments have attempted to circumvent high costs of biomass by subsidizing and mandating it. These subsidies and mandates are causing the biomass industry to grow more quickly than it would have. Much of the biomass industry has come to depend on these government incentives, making biomass economically unreliable. Before large mandates and subsidies were enacted, organic waste materials with no other economic value were used to generate electricity. Now subsidies and mandates are encouraging energy producers to use non-waste material, like timber and crops, for electricity production. Under the current system of mandates and subsidies, energy producers will continue to use tax dollars to burn non-waste materials, like whole-trees and crops, for electricity.
Smaller-scale biomass power operations can be sustainable and environmentally friendly. Current government policies, however, have made biomass unsustainable and environmentally unreliable. Grid-scale biomass electricity production can emit more pollutants than fossil fuels negatively affect local water sources, and exacerbate carbon emissions. Although biomass power is a renewable electricity source, it can be more harmful to the environment than fossil fuels.
Power facilities that generate large amounts of electricity using woody biomass often rely on unsustainable logging practices. Using grass feedstock as a biomass fuel can have negative environmental effects on land and water, making it unsuitable for large-scale electricity generation. Collecting methane from animal waste helps eliminate methane from the atmosphere by converting it to carbon dioxide, which is a comparatively less harmful greenhouse gas. In addition, processing animal waste reduces localized pollution and even increases the value of the waste as fertilizer. Biomass power plants use approximately the same amount of water as fossil fuel facilities and have similar effects on water supplies.
Despite emitting more carbon per unit of power produced than fossil fuels, biomass electricity plants are not held to the same emissions standards as their fossil fuel counterparts. Biomass facilities are not required to obtain Prevention of Significant Deterioration permits until they have emitted two and a half times more of the specified pollutants than fossil fuel plants. The EPA allows biomass facilities to burn tires, plastics, and other wastes with little regulatory accountability. If the EPA’s purpose is to reduce pollution, it is illogical for the EPA to hold biomass to lower standards than other energy sources.
Biomass materials can reliably provide electricity, but due to their naturally high water content, biomass materials burn less efficiently than coal because they require more energy input to produce a given amount of energy. Biomass producers can increase the energy efficiency of biomass materials by densifying them, though doing so is costly.
Energy crops compete for land that would otherwise be used for food crops and wood, but agricultural and forest residues can be a practical use of waste resources. The availability of residues, however, can be unpredictable. In addition, residues can be expensive to collect. Biomass can predictably generate electricity, differentiating it from other renewable electricity sources, but its reliability can be affected by costs of biomass materials and the ability of power facilities to effectively use biomass fuel.
Biomass can be a reliable energy source on small scales, but at the grid scale, it is costly, inefficient, and environmentally degrading in many cases. Mandates and subsidies that promote biomass are a misuse of taxpayer dollars and cause increased environmental harm. Without government intervention, the biomass industry would use organic waste as a supplement rather than the main source of electricity generation. Markets, not government policies, allow biomass to be used in its most efficient way.