Wood, Landfill Gas Dominate Rhode Island Renewable Energy
August 21, 2017
Rhode Island still has plenty of high-carbon-emitting wood in its renewable energy portfolio. According to a recent report, 34 percent of the “renewable” electricity in the state’s electric grid comes from power plants that burn wood, often from virgin forest. Virgin forest is synonymous with old-growth and hardwood forests, but in this case it means burning whole trees rather than wood residue and byproducts.
Critics of biomass power note studies showing that burning wood releases more carbon dioxide than coal, natural gas and oil. In addition to destroying natural habitat, the wood-fuel industry burns mature trees, one of the best sources for sequestering carbon dioxide.
The rapid switch from fossil fuels to woody biomass as a so-called “green” energy, especially in Europe, has been publicized in recent investigative reports. Excessive carbon dioxide emissions and the life-cycle impacts from energy-intensive processes such as the production of wood pellets are seen as more than offsetting any environmental benefits.
Proponents of biomass say properly managed forests create a net increase of trees. But a 2015 report by the National Resources Defense Council concludes that it take decades for new trees to recapture the carbon dioxide lost from burning mature trees for biomass energy.
In Rhode Island, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2016 extending the Renewable Energy Standard (RES) until 2035. In order to meet its annual benchmark, National Grid buys the electricity from qualified power generators in Rhode Island, across New England and in New York. The electricity is assigned to Rhode Island through the purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs), which are sold by generators of wind, solar, woody biomass, hydroelectric power and landfill gas.
The RES extension, however, didn’t include any provisions limiting National Grid from buying wood power from other states.
Currently, about 11 percent of electricity sent to local wall sockets is generated from renewable sources. Annual increases of about 1.5 percent are expected to grow renewable power to 38 percent by 2035.
State officials are counting on the RES extension to increase local wind and solar projects, as developers realize they have a buyer for their renewable electricity.
Heavily forested states such as New Hampshire and Maine have been promoting wood-energy development. In 2015, National Grid made up a shortfall in a renewable-electricity contract by buying power from woody biomass plants in New Hampshire.
Landfill gas drawn from the Central Landfill in Johnston and burned across the street at the Broadrock Renewables power plant is the largest renewable power source delivering electricity to Rhode Island.
Landfill gas accounts for 45 percent of Rhode Island’s renewable energy. Biomass is second at 34 percent, followed by hydropower at 8.6 percent, wind at 7.7 percent and solar at 3.7 percent.
According to the annual 2015 RES compliance report — the most recent from the state Public Utilities Commission — landfill gas is at its highest portion of the renewable portfolio since the RES began in 2007.
Biomass peaked in 2013, when it accounted for 50 percent of the RES. In 2014, wood power dropped to 30 percent. It jumped back to 34 percent in 2015, with the added purchase of woody biomass RECs from New Hampshire.
Other states have limited the use of woody biomass. Massachusetts commissioned a report in 2010 that discovered emission problems with wood energy. The state passed RES rules in 2012 that prohibit biomass power from facilities that burn virgin forest. The wood must also be sourced from byproducts from lumber mills and forestry residue. As a result, woody biomass accounted for only 8 percent of the Bay State’s RES portfolio in its most recent compliance report.
Massachusetts, however, passed a law in 2016 that adds woody-biomass power to the list of state-approved sources of renewable energy. While the rules are being written, critics worry that it will increase particulate pollution and carbon emissions. Critics say it would roll back the 2012 RES rules by making it difficult to track sustainable harvesting and burning practices of wood pellets and wood derived from other states.
The Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) says its recent expansion of several renewable energy incentives will lead to more Rhode Island-based wind and solar projects and eventually reduce the state’s dependence on woody biomass.
“We should see a change in that reflected in the reality of these programs,” OER commissioner Carol Grant said.
Other details of the latest RES report:
Most woody-biomass electricity delivered to Rhode Island comes from power plants in New Hampshire. A smaller amount comes from Maine.
43 percent of Rhode Island’s RES power is generated in state.
All of the state’s hydropower comes from outside Rhode Island.
National Grid manages the RES program. The total cost for the electricity supplier to comply with the RES program dropped for the second year in a row, to $13.96 million. National Grid also expects the cost to decrease in 2016 and 2017.
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I think it’s really easy to draw the wrong conclusion from the Climate Central reports. The imported woody biomass burned in Europe is mostly in the Drax plant in England, and to a lesser degree in Belgium. Scandinavia and the Baltic States – where much of the rest of the woody biomass is concentrated – are largely relying on waste products from their local logging industries, which in Scandinavia are managed in a very different and ecologically sound manner compared to the American timber industry.
Also, it is important not to confuse all biomass with woody biomass. There are many different forms of biomass. In the U.S. South, Midwest and Plains States, there is tremendous potential to produce power from annual crop wastes, which have an annual carbon cycle, meaning that whatever carbon you release is pretty much equal to what the plants absorb during their growth. Some of these crops, like sugarcane in Louisiana, have waste that is burned anyway, and using such wastes to produce electricity is just common sense.
Additionally, within the world of biomass is biogas (anaerobic digestion), which takes plant and animal wastes that are otherwise a source of methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2), and burn them, which by burning produce the less potent greenhouse gas CO2. So it’s actually a net gain for the climate, and further can be used as a flexible source of on-demand generation, which is needed to accommodate high levels of wind and solar.
In general the European approach to biomass is far more sophisticated. It’s true that in the United States and England woody biomass makes of the ultimate meaning of the transition to renewable energy, but it’s important to recognize the complexity of this broad set of technologies.
If it was true that biomass in New England was based on waste, that would be one thing, but too much of the forest is cut simply to feed these biomass plants. They are never sustainable. We have to stop burning anything to create electricity.
Landfill gas could be eliminated if we get serious about composting al of our food scrap.
Therefore neither landfill gas nor biomass are carbon useful or sustainable.
Virgin Forests? There are none in Rhode Island and doubt there are any anywhere in New England. During the hearings for biomass power plants restrictions of where the fuel comes from can be made part of the stipulations and hopefully the powers that be will restrict those biomass fuels to come from sustainable forests. Tree Farmers and woodland owners are always looking for an outlet for low value trees. Proper forest management would improve habitat and improve the remaining forests allowing the trees left the grow in a less crowded condition. If a biomass plant were to be built or even a pellet plant in RI or nearby would help manage southern New England’s forests. RI has plenty of low value timber to be harvested under the supervision of foresters, especially the under managed state lands.
A managed forest is a healthy forest.
Bruce Payton, Retired RI State Forester
The article mentions that the biomass is coming from "virgin forests". Maybe the author could define what is meant by this term in the article, because there essentially aren’t any virgin forests in New England and the few that exist are certainly not being used for biomass.
Am I reading this right? It said 11% (.11) of electricity here is from renewables, and of the renewables 7.7% (.077) is from wind, 3.7% from solar.
So for all the talk about wind and solar, this seems to be saying only about 0.8% (7.7% of 11%) of our electric supply if from wind and about 0.4% is from solar, combined only a little over 1%. That is something of a disappointment.