New Report: Biomass More Polluting Than Coal

Apr 3rd, 2014 | By | Category: Energy, Top Story

Renewable energy biomass plants are avoiding regulation, burning contaminated fuels, and threatening air quality, a new report from the Partnership for Policy Integrity.

Biomass electricity generation, a heavily subsidized form of green energy that relies primarily on the burning of wood, is more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 states, the report states. There are currently two biomass plants in Connecticut — one in Plainfield and one in Watertown.

wood-pellets“Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal,” which has been delivered to the EPA by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), concludes that biomass power plants across the country are permitted to emit more pollution than comparable coal plants or commercial waste incinerators, even as they are subsidized by state and federal renewable energy dollars.

The report contains detailed emissions and fuel specifications for a number of facilities, including plants in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean,’ said Mary Booth, Director of PFPI and author of the report. “But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The report found that biomass power is given special treatment and held to lax pollution control standards, compared to fossil-fueled power plants.

Biomass plants are dirty because they are markedly inefficient. The report found that per megawatt-hour, a biomass power plant employing “best available control technology” (BACT) emits more nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide than a modern coal plant of the same size.

Almost half the facilities analyzed, however, avoided using BACT by claiming to be “minor” sources of pollution that skim under the triggering threshold for stricter pollution controls. Minor source permits are issued by the states and contain none of the protective measures required under federal air pollution permitting.

“The American Lung Association has opposed granting renewable energy subsidies for biomass combustion precisely because it is so polluting,” said Jeff Seyler, President and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “Why we are using taxpayer dollars to subsidize power plants that are more polluting than coal?”

The analysis also found that although wood-burning power plants are often promoted as being good for the climate and carbon neutral, the low efficiency of plants means that they emit almost 50% more CO2 than coal per unit of energy produced. Current science shows that while emissions of CO2 from biomass burning can theoretically be offset over time by forest regrowth and other means, such offsets typically take several decades to fully compensate for the CO2 emitted during plant operation. None of the permits analyzed in the report required proof that carbon emissions would be offset.

EPA rules also allow biomass plants to emit more hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) than both coal plants and industrial waste incinerators, including heavy metals and dioxins. Even with these weak rules, most biomass plants avoid restrictions on the amount of toxic air pollution they can emit by claiming to be minor sources, and permits usually require little testing for proof of actual emissions. When regulated as a minor source, a facility is not required to meet any limitations on emissions of hazardous air pollutants.

The potential for biomass power plants to emit heavy metals and other air toxics is increasing, because new EPA rules allow burning more demolition debris and other contaminated wastes in biomass power plants, including, EPA says, materials that are as contaminated as coal. A majority of the facilities reviewed in the report allowed burning demolition debris and other waste wood.

“Lax regulations that allow contaminated wastes to be burned as biomass mean that communities need to protect themselves,” said Mary Booth. “They can’t count on the air permitting process to ensure that bioenergy pollution is minimized.”

The report is available at


More info from the CT DEEP site.

Biomass is renewable, organic material that can be used as a fuel or energy source. Some examples include all types of plant materials (forest thinnings, agricultural crops and residue, wood and wood waste), animal waste, landfill methane gas, sewage and solid waste.

Renewable energy in CT What is “sustainable biomass”? CT Agencies involved in biomass Biomass energy facilities in CT Links

Renewable energy in Connecticut

Connecticut statutes define “renewable sources of energy” as energy from direct solar radiation, wind, water, geothermal sources, wood and other forms of biomass.

Connecticut has a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that requires electricity providers obtain a minimum percentage of their retail load from renewable energy. The RPS outlines the three classes of renewable energy. For 2007, the RPS is 7.5% increasing to 14% by 2010, 19.5% by 2015 and 27% by 2020.

What is “sustainable biomass “?

The term sustainable biomass has been defined in the Connecticut General Statutes Section16-1(a)(45) as biomass that is cultivated and harvested in a sustainable manner. Sustainable biomass can most likely be certified as a Class I renewable energy source and generally does not mean construction and demolition waste, as defined in CGS section 22a-208x, finished biomass products from sawmills, paper mills or stud mills, organic refuse fuel derived separately from municipal solid waste, or biomass from old growth timber stands. However, there are some exceptions. Please see the full definition.

Connecticut Agencies involved in biomass

In Connecticut, agencies that in some way manage or oversee energy issues typically have some involvement in biomass.

  • Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)
    The DEEP reviews and issues permits necessary for constructing and operating biomass facilities, and has a role in planning and policy regarding the management of the state’s forests, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and energy.
  • Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA) (formerly the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund) CEFIA promotes, develops and invests in clean energy sources for the benefit of Connecticut ratepayers. In April 2005, an assessment of biomass fuel supply in Connecticut was prepared by Antares. Connecticut has invested in biomass projects, including those that were part of the Project 150 initiative. Project 150 is aimed at increasing clean energy supply in Connecticut by at least 150 megawatts (MWs) of installed capacity. This initiative creates an opportunity for developers, manufacturers and financiers to advance Connecticut-based “Class I” clean renewable energy projects. Through legislation, Project 150 mandates local electric distribution companies to enter into long-term power purchase agreements for no less than 150 MW with generators of “Class I” renewable energy
  •  The Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) regulates utility companies in Connecticut and oversees the Renewable Portfolio Standards.
  • The Institute for Sustainable Energy at Eastern Connecticut State University has information on energy alternatives and sustainability for Connecticut’s users and providers of energy.

Biomass energy facilities in Connecticut

The following list is subject to change. For up-to-date information on biomass facilities and proposed facilities, contact the CEFIA and/or PURA.

Proposed facilities:



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