News regarding climate change has not been good. Feedback loops from increased global temperatures are push the climate system ever closer to tipping points we cannot come back from. According to most estimates, power plants and industry account for 75% of committed emissions. Of that amount, coal supplies roughly ⅓ or 25% of all committed emissions. Proponents of coal power suggest that shutting down coal plants would reduce the availability of electricity and create stranded assets across the global financial sector. However, the largest power facility in the UK is now a 400 MW coal project retrofitted to use biomass from wood waste.
When we think about biomass power, in most cases, people think of woody biomass from tree thinnings and byproducts from sawmills. Creating a global switch from coal to wood biomass would likely save a significant amount of money over simply shutting down coal power plants, but it is not the overall solution to carbon emissions that it seems. New investigations in the Southeastern US states show that entire mature forests are being clear-cut to generate wood fuel for biomass power in Europe and Asia. These trees are processed into wood pellets for use in retro-fitted power facilities, specifically in the UK and Northern EU, as a replacement for coal. However, life-cycle analyses of the use of wood biomass at these scales end up having a worse effect on climate change and carbon emissions than coal and other fossil fuels. The issue has to do with the nature of carbon sequestration within forests.
The most recent IPCC report on land use shows that while it is not a complete solution, planting trees and expanding forests could reduce human-based emissions of CO2 by 30 percent. Increased protection of wetlands and other carbon sinks can have a large impact on emission reductions over time as well. Beyond the policy, it is bad timing for a growing wood-biomass industry to realize that switching from coal to large-scale wood biomass for power generation is not a sustainable solution to climate change.
What IS a reasonable and long-term solution for retrofitting existing coal projects is to adopt the use of agricultural biomass. Currently, throughout the globe, most agricultural waste is burned in the field after crops are harvested. Utilizing farm wastes for power generation, including the processing of farm wastes into pellets similar to the wood fuels mentioned above, does not create a strain on the environment in the same way. Emissions from agricultural biomass are lower, land management practices are better due to limited on-field wastage, and small farmers are provided a new revenue stream from the continued growing of staple commodity crops.
EnMass Energy is working with farmers across countries in Asia and Africa to build sustainable, robust agricultural waste supply networks. These regional procurement systems could adequately provide as much or more processed fuel for biomass power systems currently using wood wastes. And at a lower per-unit cost!