Ohio’s best hope for reducing its overwhelming dependence on coal for electricity generation is  biomass.  While wind and solar have significant benefits, it is unquestioned that current technology does not allow these renewable sources to be forms of base-load power generation. 

Biomass does have that potential in Ohio, as is evidenced by the recent announcements of the conversion of 312-megawatt First Energy’s Burger coal-fired power plant to biomass generation.  Now that proposal is meeting opposition by environmental groups. As reported in Biomass Magazine:

The Ohio Environmental Council and Consumers’ Counsel have asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to reject FirstEnergy’s request for classification of its project as a renewable energy facility on the grounds that it has not provided enough information to warrant the qualification…The two agencies are now requesting dismissal of the application altogether.  “The whole state could be deforested to produce energy for this one project.” (attorney OEC)

Opposition to the First Energy proposal will undoubtedly make movement toward biomass as a replacement for Ohio’s coal dependence much more difficult. 

Studies have confirmed that biomass presents the best hope for Ohio re-aligning its generation portfolio. A 2004 study by The Ohio State University analyzed the potential of biomass as an source of electricity generation in Ohio:

Recent studies illustrate that Ohio as a relatively large biomass resource potential.  Among the 50 states, Ohio ranks 11th in terms of herbaceous and wood biomass and 4th in terms of food waste biomass.  As a result, using renewable biomass fuels in Ohio could lead to an estimated 27.6 billion in kWh of electricity, which is enough to fully support the annual needs of 2,758,000 average homes, or 64% of the residential electricity use in Ohio.

Now a new study calls into question a long held belief regarding the benefits of biomass power. It has always been assumed that biomass is better than fossil fuels in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The assumption is based upon the "carbon cycle:"

Through photosynthesis, biomass removes carbon from the atmosphere, thus reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a major contributors to global warming.  When biomass is burned to produce energy, the stored carbon is released, but the next grown cycle absorbs carbon from the atmosphere once again.  (Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Webpage on Biomass Energy)

A new study now questions the "carbon cycle" benefits of biomass power.  It comes from a State that has historically been a very strong supporter of biomass energy- Massachusetts.   The Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, released in June 2010, addresses the following issues:

  • Sustainable forest management and ecological implications of biomass harvesting
  • Carbon sequestration of forests with and without forest management
  • Net effect of biomass energy on atmospheric carbon balance
  • U.S. and international policies in regard to biomass and carbon neutrality

The study concludes that use of forest biomass actually has greater emissions of CO2 (a greenhouse gas) than commonly utilized fossil fuels.  The chart below from the study shows forest biomass (wood) generates 31% more CO2 than coal.

Does the conclusions of this study mean Ohio should no longer consider biomass as having the best renewable energy potential?

I don’t think that is the case.  As discussed numerous times on this blog, the cost of coal is going to increase as a result of ever tightening environmental requirements (ozone & fine particle standards, MACT (mercury), revamped CAIR).  This doesn’t even include eventual climate change regulations that target reductions from existing sources. Therefore, there is a very strong incentive for Ohio to continue to quickly re-balance its power generation portfolio. 

 Certainly the other benefits of biomass remain unquestioned.  These include:

  • Renewable resource- sustainability of the resource
  • Non-CO2 pollutant reductions
  • Only alternative energy source with immediate base-load power potential

While development of biomass continues to make sense, it is important to continue to question assumptions regarding any alternative resource.  The recent Massachusetts study is worthy of consideration when making strategic decisions regarding re-balancing Ohio’s generation portfolio.