New analysis of government data finds burning wood for electricity will undermine Clean Power Plan

PELHAM, Massachusetts. The Senate energy bill (S. 2012) includes a biomass provision that would add 620 million metric tonnes** of carbon pollution to the atmosphere over a dozen years, according to a new analysis by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI). The organization, an environmental nonprofit, used Energy Information Administration (EIA) projections to make its calculations.  S. 2012 would classify the combustion of trees and other biomass for electricity generation as “carbon neutral,” or pollution free.

“Biomass power plants emit more carbon pollution per megawatt-hour than coal plants, and offsetting those emissions takes decades,” said Dr. Mary Booth, Director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity and author of the white paper. “The energy bill biomass loophole is See-No-Evil climate science because it ignores the millions of tons of pollution from burning wood for energy.”

PFPI’s white paper, “Classifying biomass as carbon neutral increases greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions under the Clean Power Plan” compared EIA scenarios for power sector buildout under the Clean Power Plan in which the CPP counts emissions from biomass combustion, or, in which biomass is classified as “carbon neutral” and bioenergy carbon pollution is ignored.  

The EIA projects that electricity generation from biomass will nearly triple if the Clean Power Plan treats biomass as carbon neutral.  Rather than displacing coal, greater biomass use displaces solar energy under the “carbon neutral” policy, with deployment of solar photovoltaic capacity 21 percent higher when biomass carbon pollution counts. The carbon neutral policy would lead to an additional 620 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted from the power sector by 2030, the target year for achieving emission reduction goals under the Clean Power Plan.  

Other findings:

  • Greater bioenergy use under the carbon neutral scenario increases particulate matter (soot) and smog-forming pollution by hundreds of thousands of tons.
  • Higher demand for biomass would require wood equivalent to clear cutting 6 – 8 million acres of forests.
  • Classifying bioenergy as carbon neutral does not assist industrial facilities like papermills – the scenarios show the same amount of bioenergy use by the industrial sector under the scenario where biomass carbon counts, and the carbon neutral scenario. 


“It is unfathomable that Congress would legislate science to allow 620 mmt more carbon pollution into the atmosphere while thermometers hit a record high for the third year in a row,” noted Booth. "We can't fight climate change by burning up the forest carbon sink."

Senators hope to reconcile its bill with House legislation for consideration have a final bill after Congress returns on November 15.


** EIA describes its “Policy with biomass carbon dioxide” scenario (labeled in our report as the “carbon counts” scenario) as “The proposed Clean Power Plan assuming the emission rate for biomass fuel is 195 pounds carbon dioxide per million Btu, as assumed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its Regulatory Impact Analysis, in place of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Reference case assumption that biomass is carbon neutral.”


It turns out, however, that although the modeling conducted to generate the EIA numbers did count biomass emissions for this scenario, the agency actually did not include biomass carbon dioxide in its output tables. Critically, there was no disclaimer explaining this adjustment in the data EIA provides for download, which we used for our analysis.


The adjustment means there is a smaller difference in the fossil fuel carbon emissions between the scenarios than what we originally calculated – but the estimate of the difference in biomass emissions doesn’t change.  We had calculated 375 mmt of fossil emissions (this is the total of 830 mmt, minus the 455 mmt of additional biomass emissions); with the adjustment, the difference in fossil emissions is 165 mmt, the difference in biomass emissions is still 455 mmt, for a total of 620 mmt additional emissions under the biomass carbon neutral scenario.  The whitepaper has been amended throughout to reflect this change.