North Carolina Court Twists Meaning of “Renewable”

Many states are providing strong incentives for biomass-derived energy through their Renewable Energy or Renewable Portfolio Standards, but when they allow whole trees and wood cut without any environmental restrictions to be considered “renewable”, those incentives can do real damage. Not all biomass is equal.  Some uses are beneficial to our forests and our climate and some harm ecosystems and ultimately increase greenhouse gas emissions.    

The North Carolina Court of Appeals is having a hard time telling the difference. In a recent decision, the Court  allowed two North Carolina’s electricity generating facilities to receive renewable energy credits even when they co-fired an electricity plant with woodchips derived not from wood waste, but from cutting down whole living trees. The carbon emissions from burning whole trees are significant. They can drastically worsen our carbon emissions problem since it can take decades for that carbon debt to be paid off. As most scientists will tell you, we cannot afford short term spikes in carbon pollution right now.

When burned for energy, biomass significantly differs from other renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. Although biomass can be regrown, its use produces greenhouse gases, soot and other pollutants. Moreover, studies have shown that net greenhouse gas emissions are initially higher from biomass than fossil fuels when biomass is sourced from expanded harvest of live trees. It is only over many decades, for example, that the substitute of biomass from whole-tree harvest in the place of natural gas provides a beneficial carbon emissions result.  Therefore, these emissions should be distinguished between good biomass projects that should go forward and those that would make our environmental and climate problems worse. Unfortunately, the North Carolina Court did not recognize this and followed a common industry assumption that all biomass is a renewable energy resource.

The carbon debt from biomass burned for energy can be “paid back” immediately or much faster if feedstocks are waste wood or wood from fuel reduction thinnings and forest restoration projects. However, this court decision may encourage biomass projects to increase logging of whole trees (including whole old-growth trees) and conversion from natural forests into plantations or cultivated systems. Our forests play a major role in mitigating already rising levels of carbon emissions and providing us with clean air and water. Thus, we must protect them from such activities. We need to adopt good policies and make sure that our taxes only support beneficial energy production projects that protect our environment and help our climate disruption problem.

Read The Wilderness Society’s Principles for Sustainable Biomass that explicitly outline the necessary environmental safeguards for renewable energy incentives.