Biomass Supply and Carbon Accounting for Southeastern Forests

02-14-2012 // Biomass Energy Resource Center, the Forest Guild, and Spatial Informatics Group
Biomass Supply and Carbon Accounting for Southeastern Forests

A new study of southeastern forests in the U.S. finds that in the long run, burning wood instead of fossil fuels to make electricity can reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but not soon enough to prevent worsening the conditions leading to global climate change.  

Download the full report: Biomass Supply and Carbon Accounting for Southeastern Forests (pdf)

As climate change policy develops, forest biomass is consistently recognized as an alternative fuel with the potential to replace fossil fuels and mitigate the build-up of atmospheric carbon. In response to these issues, the southeastern United States has seen recent interest in significantly expanding the biomass energy sector, including building new power plants, co-firing with coal power in existing plants, pellet manufacture for export to Europe, and producing cellulosic ethanol. While some look to these developments and see promise, others look with great concern at pressures on the region’s forests, implications for forest health and sustainable wood supply, and impacts on cumulative greenhouse gas emissions.

Until recently, governmental policies have almost unanimously reflected the opinion that energy from biomass is beneficial from a greenhouse gas (GHG) perspective. Biomass typically is included in energy portfolios as a renewable energy source in the same classification as wind and solar and is eligible for the same public incentives and subsidies. Starting in the early to mid 1990s, however, a number of studies looked more closely at the net GHG benefits of burning biomass and resulted in refined calculations of benefits depending on site factors, forest growth modeling, and timing of emissions and sequestration (Manomet, 2010). In the past few years, direct challenges to the accuracy of accounting approaches spurred a rethinking of carbon accounting for biomass (Searchinger, 2009).

As part of this emerging research, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is revisiting the premise that burning biomass for energy is carbon neutral in the context of the natural carbon cycle of the earth (EPA, 2011) and is considering regulating carbon emissions from biomass combustion. This study provides an example of how the “comparative” approach can be used for a specific region. It can be further evaluated by EPA to inform its criteria for an “accounting framework for biogenic CO2 emissions from stationary sources.”

Key Questions

To address these complex issues as relevant to southeastern forests, this study seeks to address two key questions relevant to the biomass electric power sector in this region of the country:

  • How much biomass (primarily wood) is available on a sustainable basis to source the expanding southeastern biomass electric power sector? And, what is the potential of public policy to create demands that exceed sustainable supply levels?
  • How will the increased use of forest biomass for electric power generation in the Southeast affect atmospheric carbon over time, and how does biomass energy compare to several fossil fuel energy alternatives in terms of cumulative GHG emissions over time?

It is important to note that due to the emphasis in the Southeast on biomass electric power production, this study examines only the use of biomass for large-scale electric power generation (and electric-led combined heat and power, or CHP). Thermal energy pathways were not examined and due to their much higher efficiencies, these thermal technologies would have significantly shorter carbon payback periods and different overall impact on atmospheric carbon levels when compared to fossil fuel technologies (Manomet, 2010).