A Charleston environmental group has joined a national lawsuit against the EPA, saying the federal agency is being too loose with pollution requirements for wood-burning power plants.
In January, the EPA said those facilities, known as biomass plants, will get a three-year reprieve from tough, new greenhouse gas laws. The agency said it realized it should not calculate the “carbon footprint” of wood-burning facilities the same way it does for fossil-fuel plants.
However, several environmental action groups filed suit in August challenging the agency’s decision. The Coastal Conservation League joined the suit last week, saying biomass plants should not be given special treatment. “We don’t think it’s incredibly fair,” Ryan Black, Climate and Energy Project Manager for group said, “Why are we giving biomass a free ride when it hasn’t been shown that biomass to electricity is necessarily carbon-neutral?”
However, the industry says the EPA’s move has nothing to do with special treatment.
Southeast Renewable Energy (SRE) is planning to build three new facilities in South Carolina in Allendale, Dorchester, and Kershaw counties. Those facilities would have fallen under the new regulations had they been in place, due to their carbon dioxide emissions.
Company President & CEO Raine Cotton said the EPA was right to treat biomass differently from fossil fuels, “They’ve recognized that there’s a life cycle,” he said, “Carbon that is released from the combustion of biomass is carbon that would have been released anyway and will be re-absorbed through the natural carbon life.”
There are a wide variety of power sources that fall under “biomass,” ranging anywhere from 25 percent energy efficiency to nearly 75 percent efficiency. The concern is over those plants that burn wood chips, usually consisting of leftover wood from timber companies.
Cotton said, when determining a “carbon footprint,” the EPA did not factor in emissions the wood would generate if timber companies simply burned it after finishing their harvest, which is the usual practice. He addded the waste wood would also emit methane if left to rot in the field.
Environmental groups fear some power utilities will build large, inefficient plants so they can avoid the costs associated with new emissions requirements. “The hope (from the industry) is that these plants will be grandfathered into any kind of future regulations because they were developed during a period of less strict standards,” Black said. Other groups are worried the increased demand would have a negative impact on South Carolina’s forests, as more wood is needed to power the facilities.
However, Cotton said he doesn’t see that happening. “The cost of biomass, the actual input of it (the chipped wood)… is dictated by supply and demand,” he said. “If there was a huge influx into the market, it would drive the price of that material up to the point that it’s no longer viable for it to be an energy source.”
Cotton said it makes sense for SRE to use chipped wood as a power source. “Why in South Carolina are we burning in the field one of the only natural resources that South Carolina has? Why not take that residue into a combustion process that cleans the emissions off it and produces homegrown power at the same time?”
Black said the Coastal Conservation League supports the use of biomass energy, but does not want it to go unregulated. “Biomass could provide an incredible boost to the South Carolina economy. What we would not want to see is large, inefficient, concentrated biomass facilities.”