NC Court Ruling on Biomass is Bad Policy

Guest Blog | August 8, 2011 | Energy Policy

Last week the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a decision affirming the N.C. Utilities Commission ruling courtorderthat Duke Energy (and others) can get renewable energy credit by using any forest biomass to make electricity. This decision affirms North Carolina’s legal definition of woody biomass, which essentially states that anything goes, including not just sawdust, slash, branches, and thinnings, but also large diameter “whole trees.”  This may have been a precise and solid legal decision, but it’s still bad policy.

We are concerned about this decision for many reasons. First and foremost, We The People have no assurance that our taxes and electricity bills are supporting energy production that clearly benefits the environment, improves ecosystems, and helps mitigate climate change. When utilities build renewable energy systems (funded by ratepayers and tax incentives) that might harm the environment or the climate, people get mad. Secondly, we supported Senate Bill 3– N.C.’s renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS), in part because was intended to solve environmental problems, not cause them.

What this is means is that Duke Energy and others could go out, chip entire forests for boiler fuel, and get renewable energy credit for this. And, in doing so, they could actually contribute to net global warming pollution. The current science on biomass carbon lifecycle analysis tells us that using big logs for energy has questionable, if any, benefit for the climate. (It simply takes too long for the landscape to grow new trees to re-sequester the biogenic carbon emitted instantaneously in the boiler when we burn big logs.)

The thing is, they could do this, but they’d be going against basic Forestry Economics 101. Adessertsk any forester or lumber mill owner and they’ll likely say this is just dumb: Of course we shouldn’t use high value, large diameter logs for electricity! Forest products should be used for their highest value, like furniture, lumber, veneer, plywood, or pulp and paper — not chipped into boiler fuel. One mill owner told me this decision was like “letting the electric utilities eat their dessert before they finish their supper.”

The recent appeals court decision, and the N.C. Utilities Commission decision before it, encourage the electric utilities to eat their dessert before they finish their supper.

The problem, though, is not so much that the law allows “whole trees” to be used for energy. There are many situations that necessitate removal of whole trees, such as for ecological restoration, so that desired species can be re-established. Also, skinny and weak “whole trees” are often cut during forest thinning to reduce competition. Should these “whole trees” be bulldozed into huge piles and open-burned?

easternpineforestWe think not.  So by focusing on the term “whole trees,” one does not see the whole picture.

N.C.’s REPS was written before researchers, such as Tim Searchinger et al helped scientists and policymakers understand that biomass energy is not categorically helpful to climate change. Only certain kinds of biomass are widely agreed to be beneficial when used for energy, and only certain bioenergy systems have clear efficiency gains that make displacing fossil fuels worthwhile from a climate-mitigation perspective.

Now that North Carolina’s biomass definition has been interpreted and affirmed so broadly, what should be done?

Environmental protections and sustainability measures are critical to ensure that biomass utilized for energy in North Carolina actually helps solve problems, not create new ones. (For those curious about possible policy solutions, here is one vision of what sustainable bioenergy ought to look like, and here are some scientific principles for smart biomass harvests.)

Now,  let’s get to work fixing the law.

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