Rhode Island's 'Green' Electricity Loaded with High-Carbon Wood

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The growth and influence of wood-fueled electricity is drawing attention nationally but not here in Rhode Island, where it's one of the largest sources of energy classified as "renewable."

In its compromise with conservatives, Democrats in Congress allowed a provision in the latest energy bill that allows for wood-powered power plants to be classified as "carbon neutral." The wood-fuel industry has gained influence in Washington, D.C., in recent years as forestland, particularly in the Southwest, is being cleared and pelletized for fuel for large power plants in the United States and around the world.

The problem is wood-fueled electricity is considered a bigger carbon emitter than coal and natural gas. Why? Because you need a lot of wood to equal the power generated from fossil fuels. Wood fuel actually pushes more carbon dioxide out smokestacks per kilowatt of electricity than coal or gas.

Wood power, also called woody biomass, is getting a "green" label for the claim that the carbon dioxide emitted can be reclaimed by planting new trees. But the knock is that it takes decades or longer to get those emission recaptured, and only if the process is done correctly.

Recent reports back the higher-emissions claim. The 2014 report “Trees, Trash, and Toxins” concludes that wood-powered electricity produces more carbon dioxide per kilowatt that coal and natural gas. Similar conclusions were reached in a 2015 report from the Southern Environmental Law Center. A 2015 report from Climate Central noted that it takes decades for new trees to replace the carbon dioxide emitted from freshly cut trees. The report also detailed the growing demand for U.S. wood around the world.

Massachusetts and Connecticut have addressed the problem by changing the rules in their renewable-energy portfolio standards so that woody biomass is eventually phased out. Rhode Island, however, doesn't have rules limiting wood as a source of renewable energy. There are no wood-fueled power plants in the state but Rhode Island's principal utility, National Grid, buys wood-generated electricity from power plants in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont for the Renewable Energy Standard (RES). The RES is the mandated allotment of renewable energy that is bought by National Grid.

The RES is praised for encouraging local renewable-energy projects and for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In 2013, however, more than 50 percent of the renewable electricity Rhode Island bought and delivered to ratepayers came from wood-fueled power plants in other states, according to an annual compliance report. In 2014, the most recent year of published reporting, the number dropped to 30 percent.

Meanwhile, the RES was recently expanded from about 10 percent of the electricity customers receive today to about 38 percent by 2035. At a July 7 bill-signing ceremony on Aquidneck Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo praised the legislation for the jobs it will create but failed to mention any climate-reduction benefits.

Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, wrote the original and the updated bill. Elmer told ecoRI News that the goal of the legislation was to extend the RES program before it ran out in 2019. He said the matter of limiting woody biomass was never raised during the legislative process.

“It wasn’t an issue,” Elmer said.

The carbon impact of biomass, however, is getting talked about in a subcommittee of the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4).

“It has been brought up in discussion just not in the Legislature,” said Todd Bianco, of the Public Utility Commission, who serves on the EC4’s Greenhouse Gas Study Technical Committee.

Meanwhile, efforts to advance what is called the “biomass loophole” is happening on several fronts in Washington, D.C. On July 11, the House Rules Committee advanced an appropriations bill that classifies biomass as carbon neutral. A Senate bill with the same provisions has advanced and the two chambers will begin negotiations on a unified bill.

The Obama administration opposes the provision. The National Resources Defense Council calls the rider an accounting charade.

As the debate plays out, the Environmental Protection Agency and its Science Advisory Board are evaluating carbon emissions associated with biomass.