Minnesota plants seeds for community solar gardens

(Photo by Toshihiro Oimatsu via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Toshihiro Oimatsu via Creative Commons)

(Midwest Energy News, May 29, 2013)—Scott Cramer has sold offbeat, left-leaning T-shirts, political buttons and bumper stickers through his Northern Sun Merchandising company in Minneapolis for more than 30 years.

These days, one of his more popular slogans has an energy theme. “It says: Whenever there is a huge spill of solar energy, it’s just called a nice day.”

Which is why Cramer is more than happy to lease his 5,000-square-foot rooftop for what will soon be one of Minnesota’s first shared, community-owned solar installations.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill last week that requires the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to establish a community solar gardens program early next year.

The idea is to let customers who can’t or don’t want to install solar panels on their own rooftop instead buy individual panels in a nearby solar development. The electricity generated by a customer’s panels is credited to their utility bill as if they were installed on their home or business. Continue reading “Minnesota plants seeds for community solar gardens”

Minnesota’s new solar law: Looking beyond percentages

Solar panels at the Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone, Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

Solar panels at the Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone, Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

(Midwest Energy News, May 24, 2013)—Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday signed into law an energy bill that’s projected to give the state a more than thirtyfold increase in solar generation by the end of the decade.

The Solar Energy Jobs Act was rolled into a larger, omnibus economic development bill and approved by the state’s legislature last week.

The section that’s drawn the most attention is a 1.5 percent by 2020 solar electricity standard for large utilities that is on top of the state’s existing 25 percent by 2020 renewable mandate.

But the bill has several other components that could rival the solar standard’s impact, from expanded incentives and net-metering reforms to the creation of shared, community “solar gardens.” Continue reading “Minnesota’s new solar law: Looking beyond percentages”

Xcel backs project to further fine-tune wind power forecasting

(Photo by Sharon Drummond via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Sharon Drummond via Creative Commons)

On the Great Plains, the gusts ahead of a strong cold front can deliver thunder, lightning, hail and downpours.

Also: A surge in electricity from wind farms big enough to make the power grid go haywire if it caught utilities off guard.

Utilities call it a “ramp event” — a sudden spike in wind power generation followed by an equally fast drop-off.

For Xcel Energy, which has more wind power on its system than any other utility, these swings can be as large at 800 megawatts, the equivalent of a large baseload power plant suddenly switching on.

The Minnesota utility is keenly interested in knowing as precisely as possible when these ramps are going to occur, not just to avoid overloading its system but also so it can make full use of all that wind power.

The company is funding new research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, to improve weather forecasting for renewable energy facilities.

Xcel Energy partnered with NCAR in 2009 to begin developing wind power forecasting tools that are already saving ratepayers millions annually by allowing the utility to make better use of wind power.

A paper published by the Bulletin of American Meteorological Society in 2011 estimated that improved wind energy forecasts have the potential to trim the nation’s electricity bill between $1 billion and $4 billion annually.

Over the next two years, NCAR will be working on several improvements, including better ramp forecasts and new tools to predict ice build-up on turbine blades and estimate rooftop solar output.

Ramping up

This chart, via NCAR, shows how weather can impact wind farm output.

This chart, via NCAR, shows how weather can impact wind farm output.

NCAR Program Director Sue Ellen Haupt said it’s challenging to predict the precise profile of a ramp event, such as the burst in speed and change in direction that happens as a cold front passes.

“That’s what we’re working hard to fine tune,” Haupt said. “We often know that it’s going to come, but perhaps we’re off by an hour or two.”

And with an 800-megawatt spike not out of the question, an hour or two matters. Grid operators need to be ready to adjust the system as it happens in case the timing or intensity of the forecast is off, Haupt said.

Generally, the sooner grid operators can be certain about a ramp event, the more options they have to cut back generation at more expensive fossil fuel power plants.

“If the wind comes up and they aren’t expecting it, they have to dump it,” she said, meaning the power produced by the wind farms would go to waste.

Icing impact

The center plans to borrow its own research on how ice accumulates on airplane wings and apply it to a new tool for alerting wind farm operators to potential icing conditions on turbine blades.

As ice accumulates on wind turbine blades, the added weight causes them to turn less efficiently, leading to a drop in electricity output. Heavy or rapid ice accumulation can actually damage the turbines if they continue operating.

Haupt said the tool NCAR is developing for Xcel Energy will pull in temperature, humidity and other weather data to predict when ice is likely to occur, how that accumulation will affect output, and whether turbines should be shut off to prevent ice damage.

The secret sauce will be technology NCAR developed over the last two decades for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for forecasting icing conditions on airplane wings.

“The FAA needs to know when airplane wings are going to ice, and of course airplane wings are airfoils much like a wind turbine blade. So there’s a lot known about ice accretion on airplane wings that directly applies to wind turbine blades,” Haupt said.

The project will also conduct experiments at Penn State University, where researchers will observe how freezing rain and fog accumulates on blades and how it affects the turbine’s performance.

Solar load

The amount of solar power on the Midwest’s electricity grid today is still small enough that it’s inconsequential from a grid management perspective — a blip on the charts that easily falls within operators’ margin of error.

That’s likely to change in the years ahead, as solar prices decline and state policies encourage development, such as the 1.5 percent solar by 2020 standard recently passed by the Minnesota Legislature.

“This is an issue that has really hit in California already,” Haupt said. “Xcel doesn’t serve the parts of the country where solar is increasing as rapidly, but they see it coming.”

Unlike with wind farms, utilities don’t get a separate data stream for customers’ rooftop solar generation. “When the sun is shining, it will just look to Xcel like they’re using less energy,” Haupt said.

NCAR is building a tool for Xcel that will try to help it better understand how much of a load drop-off is due to customers turning down their air conditioners versus generating more of their own solar power.

That will hopefully lead to better forecasts on how weather conditions affect a region’s solar carve-out on sunny days.

Haupt said Xcel is being proactive in helping to develop the next generation of renewable energy forecasting tools, which will be more important as a larger percentage of our electricity comes from variable sources such as wind and solar.

“We need to know when they’re going to be [generating] so that we can use them well,” Haupt said.

Originally published May 22, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/05/22/xcel-backs-project-to-further-fine-tune-wind-power-forecasting/

Can state harvesting guidelines keep biomass sustainable?

A forest in north-central Minnesota. (Photo by Faruk Ates via Creative Commons)

A forest in north-central Minnesota. (Photo by Faruk Ates via Creative Commons)

As a Midwest biomass group promotes a goal of drawing 10 percent of the region’s heating energy from wood fuels by 2025, more questions are sure to arise about whether that amount of fuel could be harvested sustainably.

Heating the Midwest, which announced the goal at its conference last month, estimates that the region has more than enough logging and agricultural residue to supply a tenth of its heating energy by the middle of the next decade.

Making sure that those feedstocks are collected in a way that doesn’t damage the environment will require a review and updating of state harvesting standards, the group says in its 2025 vision document.

Getting the rules right could mean the difference between developing a fuel source that helps address climate change and air pollution challenges versus one that ultimately does more harm than good.

Rules being updated

A few Midwest states have already revisited their forest harvesting policies to address potential new demand for biomass feedstocks. Minnesota created the nation’s first biomass harvesting guidelines in 2007, and Michigan and Wisconsin followed in 2008.

“When biomass started getting quite a bit more attention… folks started realizing that we need to be ahead of the game here.” said Anna Dirkswager, a biomass consultant with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

In the mid-2000s, with natural gas prices climbing and three new biomass facilities coming online to meet a state biomass mandate, the Minnesota Legislature asked state forestry officials to create a set of sustainable biomass harvesting guidelines.

The DNR and the Minnesota Forest Resources Council convened a 17-member stakeholder group that included representatives from industry, academia, government, and environmental groups.

“Developing the guidelines was a very long, controversial process, as you can imagine,” Dirkswager said. “I think because that group had such a broad membership, what we came out with was really great.”

The 42-page addendum to the state’s existing forest management guidelines, in general, says biomass harvesters should leave behind about one-third of the debris that’s created during the collection of tree tops and limbs.

About 20 percent of the tops and limbs that are cut should be scattered across the site. That, combined with “incidental breakage” from a typical harvest will be enough to meet the goal of leaving one-third behind.

Stumps, roots and litter should be left on the forest floor, and biomass harvest should be avoided in areas that are prone to erosion or home to threatened or endangered species.

Leaving material behind can help preserve wildlife habitat, maintain soil nutrients, minimize erosion and protect water quality, among other benefits, according to the guidelines.

Carbon emissions aren’t specifically addressed in the guidelines, but Dirkswager said promoting healthy re-growth means a forest can store more carbon.

Strong oversight of forests

The rules are mandatory in state-owned forests and on most county land, but voluntary on private land. Companies with master logger certifications are also audited for compliance with the guidelines.

Even though the rules aren’t mandatory across the board, Dirkswager said Minnesota’s forests are well-protected by third-party certification programs, as well as by the current state of the forestry market.

Minnesota has more land that’s dual-certified by both the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative than any other state — more than 5.6 million acres, including hundreds of thousands of acres of county and private forests.

And the state sells wood very cheaply, especially since the housing crash, and until that changes she doesn’t expect much pressure for private wood sales. “We just don’t really see harvests on private land right now,” she said.

While Minnesota officials believe its biomass harvesting guidelines are sound, the reality is that they remain untested, and that more study and time is needed to see whether they work.

Almost as soon as the guidelines were published, the recession hit and domestic fracking took off, leading to a plunge in natural gas prices that sidelined several biomass projects.

The science is clear that removing biomass from a site inevitably removes nutrients, but questions remain about how much needs to be left behind in order to sustain a forest’s health and biodiversity.

“Although a certain amount of woody debris retention is essential for sustaining biodiversity and wildlife populations, science does not tell us how much woody debris can be sustainably removed from forest harvest sites,” the Minnesota guidelines state.

That said, studies have indicated that nutrient levels in most Minnesota soils are sufficient to tolerate “a large number of such harvest rotations without harmful effects,” it says.

Research continues

Tony D’Amato, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources, currently has two ongoing studies evaluating Minnesota’s biomass harvesting guidelines.

One observation he’s made so far is that the amount of incidental breakage left behind varies a lot depending on the forest and soil type. In aspen forests, the amount of breakage left behind can be almost enough on its own to meet the guidelines, whereas harvests in conifer forests tend to be cleaner with less incidental breakage. One recommendation might be for states to offer more specific guidelines for different soil types.

“There is some evidence that suggests the impact of these removal treatments is really going to vary based on soils, but our guidelines for the state are kind of a one-size-fits-all,” D’Amato said.

Other questions, he said, include how different harvesting practices affect fungi. There’s some evidence that certain species decline after biomass harvesting, and it’s unclear how significant that is to the future health of the forest.

“I recognize that as much as we like to focus on the details and research and science,” D’Amato said, “it’s hard to turn those details into a policy.”

Originally published May 21, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/05/21/can-state-harvesting-guidelines-keep-biomass-sustainable/

Are utilities moving quickly enough to cut carbon emissions?

The smokestack at the #4 unit of the Boswell Energy Center near Cohasset, Minnesota is seen in this 2006 photo. (Photo by Than Tibbetts via Creative Commons)

The smokestack at the #4 unit of the Boswell Energy Center near Grand Rapids, Minnesota is seen in this December 2006 photo. (Photo by Than Tibbetts via Creative Commons)

In January, northern Minnesota electric utility Minnesota Power announced a new direction forward for its generation portfolio.

The company’s “Energy Forward” plan calls for adding wind and hydropower, retiring one coal-burning unit, and converting two others to natural gas. Along with continued conservation efforts, the investments are projected to lower the utility’s carbon emissions 30 percent by 2015 compared to 2005 levels.

It’s the years beyond that, however, that worry climate activists.

That’s because Minnesota Power has also proposed investing more than $350 million on an air-quality project at the utility’s largest generator, a 585-megawatt coal-fired unit near Grand Rapids, Minnesota, known as Boswell 4.

The project, which has the support of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, would bring dramatic reductions in particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and mercury emissions, which would mean less haze over the region’s scenic lakes and forests and a lower risk to residents for respiratory and neurological health problems.

But it could also financially commit the company to burning coal for another two decades, during which the unit could spew more than 6 million tons of greenhouse gases at a time when scientists warn major reductions are needed to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

‘We need much bolder action’

A coalition that includes Fresh Energy, the Sierra Club, the Izaak Walton League, and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy is asking the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to require an in-depth study of carbon and other environmental impacts. A public comment period is open until Monday, May 20.

All four groups are members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News (which is based at Fresh Energy).

If Boswell 4 were to continue to operate past 2030, it’s less likely Minnesota Power will be able to continue the pace of the carbon reductions it’s achieving through 2015.

In that context, the Minnesota case provides an example of a much larger concern — not just in the Midwest, but also globally.

“We need much bolder action,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that is not directly involved in the Boswell 4 case. “Incremental steps like those proposed by Minnesota Power are probably not enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

Minnesota Power is on track to exceed the state of Minnesota’s goal of a 15 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2015. Once it finishes implementing its plan, its generation mix will consist of one-third renewables, one-third natural gas and one-third coal — down from about 60 percent coal today.

“We think we’re certainly hitting on all cylinders,” said Al Rudeck, Minnesota Power’s vice president for strategy and planning.

Rudeck said the utility has a successful conservation program that routinely meets the state’s 2 percent annual requirement. And it continues to add renewables, including 400 megawatts of wind power from the Bison Wind Energy Center in North Dakota and a 250-megawatt purchase agreement from Manitoba Hydro.

The company is retiring a 75-megawatt coal unit at its Taconite Harbor facility and converting two 55-megawatt coal units at its Laskin Energy Center to a natural gas peaking plant.

Even if the company can continue to find more opportunities such as these to keep pace with Minnesota’s voluntary state goal of 80 percent carbon reductions by 2050, will that be enough to avoid extreme climate change?

While it is difficult to project the exact impact of rising carbon emissions, recent research suggests targets like Minnesota’s may be too hopeful.

In February, the journal Energy Policy published a paper by Netherlands researcher Michel den Elzen that concludes developed nations need to cut carbon emissions in half by 2020 to have a “medium chance” of preventing climate change’s worst impacts.

And in November, PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that in order to avoid jumping over the guardrail from uncomfortable to dangerous climate change, the global economy needs to cut its carbon intensity 5.1 percent every year from now until 2050. The average annual rate since 2000 has been 0.8 percent.

The United States has pledged to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. As of 2011, the country had achieved a 7 percent reduction (though that progress was aided by the recession). One way for the U.S. to meet its 2020 goal, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers: replace all coal-fired generation with natural gas, which emits significantly less carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced.

Continuing to burn coal may not make these targets impossible, but it certainly makes them more difficult to hit.

“We are very concerned with what we call life-extension projects at coal plants,” said Beth Goodpaster, an attorney for the environmental groups intervening in the Boswell 4 case. “When you’re putting over $350 million into a coal-fired power plant, you are making it ever so much harder to … phase it out.”

‘We think that we have a better plan’

Goodpaster said they don’t believe Minnesota Power has fully evaluated all of the possible alternatives, such as replacing the unit with a mix of energy conservation, renewables, natural gas, and grid power purchases. Those it did consider were evaluated too narrowly, without considering health and environmental costs, she said.

Jessica Tritsch, an organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said Minnesota Power needs to study a broader range of alternatives that include things such as energy conservation, wind and solar power. “We’re not convinced Minnesota Power has fully studied those options.”

Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge quickly dismissed the environmental groups’ allegations.

“It’s clear that their agenda is really to shut down every baseload power plant in the state,” Rutledge said. “We think that we have a better plan.”

Minnesota Power’s plan is the result of a process that, as required by regulators, seeks out the lowest-cost, reliable generation mix that meets environmental regulations. Rudeck said an all-conservation option isn’t a suitable replacement for the Boswell 4 unit.

“If that was the best option for customers, the resource [planning model] would pick it,” Rudeck said. “Clearly it doesn’t.”

The Minnesota Department of Commerce agrees. In comments filed Tuesday, the department’s Division of Energy Resources said the emissions-reduction project at Boswell 4 is “reasonable” for meeting state and federal mercury rules, and that it believes the project is in the public interest.

The utility’s Boswell 4 evaluation compares the emissions-reduction project with two natural gas alternatives, which it concludes would be more costly to customers.

Until Congress or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decide to regulate carbon emissions from existing coal-burning power plants, the company isn’t under any legal obligation to consider climate impacts. Minnesota recently postponed a rule to require carbon accounting in utility planning.

The environmental groups say that conservation and renewables can win in an economic comparison with fossil fuels. They want state regulators to deny the Boswell 4 upgrades, let it retire in 2016 when new federal mercury rules take effect, and replace it with wind, solar, efficiency, gas and grid power purchases.

“You could have showed us why those other options are impossible,” Goodpaster said.

Minnesota Power studied retirement options for its coal-fired power plants last year, however, and state officials say that study, and the Commerce Department’s own calculations, show that replacing Boswell 4 isn’t possible without increasing costs, even under “extreme assumptions” about carbon and fuel prices.

“[I]nitial Department analysis determined that, at the expected level of environmental compliance costs, retiring Boswell 4 is not a cost-effective option,” the state’s Division of Energy Resources said in its coal-diversification study comments.

It’s the environmental costs that concern the petitioners:

“The decision to retrofit [Boswell 4] rather than retire it or replace it with a natural gas plant would, over time, result in the emission of an enormous amount of additional air pollutants, especially greenhouse gases,” the environmental groups say in their filing. “Continued emissions of GHG are contributing to the environmental and public health problems caused by climate change which are numerous, severe, and irreversible.”

Originally published May 17, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/05/17/are-utilities-moving-quickly-enough-to-cut-carbon-emissions/

Evaluation gives high marks to Wisconsin efficiency program

An infrared scanner used in home energy audits. (Photo by Green Energy Futures via Creative Commons)

An infrared scanner used in home energy audits. (Photo by Green Energy Futures via Creative Commons)

A new report suggests that Wisconsin’s energy efficiency incentives are back on track following an administrative shake-up two years ago that brought major changes to the program.

An independent evaluation released last week says Focus on Energy achieved greater electricity savings and a higher participation rate in 2012 than any other year in the program’s history.

Wisconsin utility customers last year conserved about 650 million kWh of electricity — enough to power about 92,000 homes — through Focus on Energy’s appliance recycling, lighting discounts, energy audits and other programs.

And more than a million residential and business customers received direct incentives for energy efficiency or renewable energy projects, a nine-fold increase from the previous year.

“It’s clear that the program is back on track and seeing the kind of great results it always has,” said Keith Reopelle, senior policy director for Clean Wisconsin, a Madison environmental group. (Clean Wisconsin issued a press release here.)

The report covers the first full year since the Wisconsin Public Service Commission hired Louisiana firm CB&I, formerly the Shaw Group, to administer Focus on Energy, which had previously been run by a Madison nonprofit.

The transition was bumpy at times. The new administrator riled renewable energy installers, for example, by suspending wind and solar rebates for 10 months while it evaluated their cost effectiveness.

Focus on Energy’s programs created $2.89 in benefits for every $1 spent on incentives and administration in 2012, according to the analysis, conducted by the Camus Group. Comparisons to past years are difficult to make because a different formula was used.

By any measure, it’s clear the program is delivering value to the state’s utility customers, said Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin

“This program is saving money for customers. That’s why the Citizens Utility Board likes it so much,” Higley said. “The more we spend on energy efficiency, the more we save, and there are very few programs of any kind that do that.”

Higley added that even those who don’t directly participate in the incentive programs benefit because they help reduce overall utility costs.

Focus on Energy program director Bill Haas said he’s personally most excited about the increase in customer participation seen over the last year.

“Part of the restructuring of Focus on Energy was really geared towards providing more opportunities for Wisconsin utility ratepayers to participate in the program at home and at work,” Haas said.

One example is changes made to its residential lighting and appliance program, which works directly with retailers to offer markdowns or coupons for light bulbs, low-flow shower heads and other energy-saving products.

Reopelle said the achievements in part reflect a shift in emphasis by the Public Service Commission, which made a decision to prioritize immediate energy savings over longer-term marketing and educational programs.

A staff person for the PSC said all three commissioners were unavailable or declined to comment Tuesday afternoon.

Don Wichert, interim executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a renewable energy advocacy group that’s criticized Focus on Energy changes in the past, said the jury remains out on whether the program’s renewable energy incentives are effective. Many of the program’s renewable rebates were on hold until mid-2012 or later and only a small amount of money was distributed.

Nevertheless, he said the evaluation shows the efficiency programs are working.

“It shows that Focus [on Energy] can be an effective program,” Wichert said. “The state legislature should look at this and consider kicking up the funding.”

Clean Wisconsin, the Citizens Utility Board, and RENEW Wisconsin are members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Originally published May 15, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/05/15/evaluation-gives-high-marks-to-wisconsin-efficiency-program/

Does burning wood instead of fossil fuels increase GHG emissions?

A biomass power plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Photo by PSNH via Creative Commons)

A biomass power plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Photo by PSNH via Creative Commons)

After reporting last week on a Midwest biomass group’s proposal to boost wood-fueled heating in the region, reader John Gunn tweeted to tell us “forest biomass GHG emissions are much more complicated than your article indicates.”

He’s right, so we thought we’d take a closer look at the topic of biomass and carbon emissions.

Gunn is a Minnesota native who now heads a Massachusetts nonprofit research lab, Natural Assets Laboratory, that studies forest carbon issues.

“Based on what we’ve found, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution in terms of emissions,” says Gunn.

Carbon per kilowatt

It’s a misconception that wood fuels are carbon neutral, minus the energy spent to harvest, process, and transport them, he says. When we burn wood, we’re releasing carbon into the atmosphere that might have otherwise been stored in that form for years, decades or centuries.

Gunn co-authored a 2010 study that concluded the amount of carbon released per unit of energy is actually greater for forest biomass than it is for fossil fuels. That’s because wood isn’t a very energy-dense material, which means you have to burn a lot more tons of it to match the energy output of gas or coal.

It’s a controversial claim, one that’s been disputed by wood-fuel advocates. This alleged “carbon debt” can range anywhere from 2 percent to 66 percent, depending on the type of material burned, what it’s displacing, and whether it’s used to generate heat or electricity, Gunn’s paper asserts.

In the short term, burning wood for energy results in a net increase in carbon emissions, he says. Sustainable forestry practices can help well-designed biomass systems repay that carbon debt and then some, but the carbon benefits typically accrue years or decades into the future, he says.

With atmospheric carbon pushing 400 parts per million, policymakers need to be aware of the short-term costs of burning biomass, says Gunn. As a result of the 2010 study, Massachusetts amended its renewable portfolio standard to exclude biomass projects with long carbon payback periods.

Carbon footprint factors

Gunn is co-author of a more recent paper that identified four factors that were most important in calculating the “debt-then-dividend” curve for a region or biomass facility.

Feedstock: What are you burning, and what would have happened to it otherwise? “You need to look at what was the fate of that material,” says Gunn.

Increased demand for wood fuels might motivate a logging company to harvest a few more trees than it would have otherwise. Under business-as-usual those trees would have continued to store carbon in the forest, but instead the carbon would be released into the atmosphere.

Whole trees produce a greater carbon debt than only using the tops and limbs of trees harvested for other purposes, but even those forest leftovers affect the carbon equation. Left on the forest floor, those branches might decay over several years, releasing some carbon into the air and depositing some carbon back into the soil.

On the other hand, intercepting scrap wood that was bound for a landfill can contribute to a quick carbon benefit, but Gunn said that also depends on a lot of factors.

Heat vs. electricity: The life-cycle carbon emissions from generating electricity at a utility-scale biomass facility are about three times greater per MWh than emissions from a similar-sized natural gas electric power plant and 50 percent greater than a coal-fired electricity plant, according to Gunn’s research.

On a carbon basis, wood pellets compete with coal and natural gas much better in thermal or combined-heat-and-power facilities. A biomass cogeneration plant would emit just slightly more carbon than a coal cogeneration plant, with the difference being less than 3 percent.

What it’s displacing: Biomass has a hard time competing with natural gas financially, and the same is true for carbon emissions.

“[W]here biomass replaces a relatively GHG efficient fossil fuel like natural gas, the time needed to pay back carbon debts and realize the benefits of biomass can increase substantially,” the paper says.

Forest management: The key to paying off biomass’ short-term carbon debt is having sustainable forestry practices in place that ensure that more carbon is being “re-sequestered” in forests than is being removed for fuel. And those practices need to be in place for the long haul, Gunn stressed.

For example, if private land that is sustainably harvested for biomass today were to be sold in the future to a company that didn’t follow the same practices, it could erase the carbon gains. “If that doesn’t hold, then the whole benefit doesn’t hold,” says Gunn.

Forest owners’ decisions about the intensity and frequency of harvests can either slow or accelerate forest growth, therefore affecting the rate that carbon is recaptured by the forest.

Complex equation

Others have looked at similar variables and reached different conclusions about biomass’ carbon profile.

Dovetail Partners, a nonprofit research group based in Minneapolis, for example, concluded in a 2012 study that biomass harvesting gives landowners an incentive to maintain forests rather than converting them to agriculture.

Heating the Midwest, in its report calling for a 10 percent thermal biomass goal by 2025, promoted wood fuels’ potential to reduce global warming, but also acknowledged the complexity.

“The degree to which biomass energy system can reduce carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels is directly related to establishment and management of harvesting regimes, forest types, fuel transport, and efficiency,” the biomass group’s paper says.

It may be on the right track by focusing on sustainably harvested wood for thermal energy in areas not currently served by natural gas, but even so, Gunn says it’s not a given that its vision would be beneficial or even benign in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Gunn says he’s not out to attack biomass — he uses wood fuel to heat his own home — but he thinks its also hazardous for policymakers to assume that biomass is inherently carbon neutral.

“A lot of the studies are finding that there is often a benefit to the atmosphere,” says Gunn, “but it often takes a while to get there.”

Originally published May 10, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/05/10/does-burning-wood-instead-of-fossil-fuels-increase-ghg-emissions/

Midwest looks to New England for biomass roadmap

(Photo via USDA)

(Photo via USDA)

Wood fuel represents just a sliver of the Midwest’s heating market. By BTUs, solid biomass supplied 3 percent of the region’s heat in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The rest came primarily from non-renewable, fossil fuels — mostly natural gas.

A biomass advocacy group called Heating the Midwest thinks the region could and should significantly boost the share of heat it gets from wood-burning stoves and boilers, and it unveiled a vision at its annual conference in Minnesota last week for how to get to a 10 percent thermal biomass goal by 2025.

“If the Midwestern region is serious about achieving a cleaner, more sustainable energy future, it must focus new and significant attention on thermal energy,” the group said in its report, which claims there would be environmental and economic benefits from transitioning to use of more renewable biomass for heating.

The group’s vision also calls for generating 5 percent of heating energy from solar thermal and geothermal, bringing renewables’ share to 15 percent.

Thermal energy accounts for about 38 percent of all energy consumed in the Midwest. Yet most energy policy efforts in the region have focused on electricity and transportation. Nationally, thermal energy gets even less attention because it has little impact on warm-weather states.

The Northeast as an example

Heating the Midwest is looking to the Northeast as a successful example of where regional coordination and investment is helping to grow a wood-fuel industry. Its vision document was prepared by a Maine biomass research and consulting group, FutureMetrics, that did a similar roadmap for the Northeast in 2010.

Wood fuel provides about 4 percent of heating energy in the Northeast (six New England states and New York), where biomass supporters have announced a goal of providing 18 percent of thermal power by 2025.

In the Northeast, however, biomass has much less competition from natural gas. Only about 57 percent of homes and businesses there are heated by natural gas, compared to 72 percent in the Midwest. Low natural gas prices have hurt the financial case for biomass projects in much of the region.

Still, about 15 percent of Midwest homes and businesses use electric heat and another 11 percent use fuel oil or LPG (liquefied petroleum gases). In total, more than 12.6 million customers in the region are not connected to natural gas pipelines, including more than half of customers in North and South Dakota.

Number of Homes and Businesses NOT connected to Natural Gas

The Midwest biomass group sees potential to grab market share by converting these off-pipeline customers to wood pellet or chip fuels, which are less expensive than heating oil, propane and electric heat. (Two northern Minnesota towns, for example, are studying biomass options as an alternative to trucking in fossil fuels.)

‘It’s still a jump for some people’

When biomass is sustainably harvested, it can have significant environmental benefits. Modern biomass burners emit fewer particulates than those built decades ago, and they emit less sulfur dioxide and mercury than fossil fuels, the report says.

Also, the combustion of biomass doesn’t add any new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — it only re-releases the carbon previously absorbed by the plants that serve as the fuel source. The overall climate impact of burning biomass is largely determined by the amount of energy that goes into harvesting, processing and shipping it.

The region has enough farms and forests to sustainably harvest enough biomass to heat 1,161,000 average-sized homes, according to the report. Ramping up the biomass industry to meet that demand would create hundreds of new logging, chipping and trucking jobs, it says.

Customers would save money on heating fuel costs, and the savings would likely grow as fossil fuel prices climb. But there would be upfront costs for converting or replacing existing equipment, and that’s one of the big barriers.

“It’s very hard to get people to invest in systems that are currently working,” said T.J. Morice, vice-chair of Heating the Midwest’s steering committee and also a vice president at a Wausau, Wisconsin, wood products company. “As good as it looks on paper, it’s still a jump for some people.”

Policy support

Another issue is fuel supply. While the Midwest has plenty of biomass, someone still has to harvest, process and deliver it. Bulk distribution of wood chips and pellets is still in its infancy and will require “broad market adoption” to attract the necessary capital investment in storage and transportation equipment, the report says.

In the Northeast, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have already bridged that gap, with more than a dozen modern pellet delivery trucks operating there.

Progress in those states has been driven in part by supportive policy. New Hampshire supports thermal renewables with revenue from its renewable electricity standard and greenhouse gas initiatives. Northeast states also used federal stimulus dollars to fund several biomass projects, including 23 pellet and wood chip heating plants in Maine and 125 pellet boiler systems in New Hampshire.

“They’ve been able to make a little more progress from the policy standpoint,” Morice said. “They’ve made some bigger strides, and that’s what we aspire to do here with this effort.”

The Heating the Midwest 2025 vision lists several “critical public policy elements” that are needed to achieve the target. They include:

  • Supporting research on the region’s biomass supply, along with sustainable forest management, biomass harvesting and procurement guidelines.
  • Developing a Renewable Thermal Standard, similar to existing Renewable Fuels Standard or state renewable electricity standards.
  • Create federal and state incentives, grants and loans to encourage installations of high-efficiency biomass thermal systems.

Morice said part of the problem is that wood-fuel systems don’t have “policy parity” with other technologies. In Wisconsin, he said, customers can get rebates to replace an old petroleum burner with a newer, more efficient petroleum burner, but they can’t get assistance with installing a pellet unit.

Heating the Midwest held its second annual conference last week in Carlton, Minnesota, about 20 miles south of Duluth. The volunteer group came together a few years ago to promote thermal biomass heating in the region. Its steering committee includes industry, government, nonprofit and academic representatives.

Steering committee chair Brian Brashaw, a program director at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute, said he’s “bullish” on biomass and pointed to notable biomass installations such as District Energy in St. Paul and another at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Ely, Minnesota.

“We have success stories,” Brashaw said. “We just don’t have enough of them.”

Originally published May 01, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/05/01/midwest-looks-to-new-england-for-biomass-roadmap/