Congress Needs to Commit to Biomass Power

Posted December 18, 2009 at 11:10am

The Obama administration promises a new energy policy to create jobs, fight global warming and increase America’s energy independence. Soon, Congress will address these challenges by passing comprehensive energy and climate legislation in hopes to meet these goals. In order to do so, Congress must level the playing field in the renewable energy sector and continue to invest in biomass power.

[IMGCAP(1)]Biomass power is electricity produced from organic waste and industry byproducts that have no other purpose than to decompose in landfills or rot on the forest floor. The electricity-generating process for biomass power eliminates harmful methane gas and reduces carbon dioxide emissions. Accounting for the displacement of fossil fuels, biomass power removes more than 30 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

This summer, Congress recognized that tapping into biomass power was the only way all 50 states will meet the ambitious goals of a federal renewable electricity standard. Policymakers approved a broad definition of biomass power to ensure that southeastern states without sustainable access to wind or solar power could count on biomass to make up a significant percentage of their electricity. Still, there are serious threats to the biomass power industry buried in the energy legislation that would ultimately sink any chance of fully meeting the administration’s stated goals.

In the Jumpstart Our Business Strength Act of 2004, Congress awarded five-year production tax credits to new and existing biomass power facilities because of their positive impact on climate change and the economy. Now those credits are set to expire on Dec. 31 of this year. By allowing these essential tax credits to expire, Congress would be pulling the plug on thousands of clean energy jobs all across the United States.

Under the same JOBS Act, wind and geothermal power each received production tax credits at twice the rate of biomass power for 10 years. In essence, biomass power was awarded half the tax credit for half the time period. There is no legitimate public policy reason for this disparity and Congress should restore fairness in the production tax credit by granting extensions for biomass power at the same rate as other renewables.

Currently, biomass power accounts for more than half of all the renewable electricity produced in the United States, and the Department of Energy predicts that biomass could potentially make up as much as 15 percent of America’s entire electricity supply. Despite this forecast, Congressional inaction could force the closure of as many as 50 percent of America’s operating biomass power facilities.

These biomass power facilities are primarily located in small, rural communities all across the United States, providing hundreds of jobs and sustaining local economies. If Congress does not extend biomass power’s production tax credits for an additional five years, these rural towns in the heartland of America will be hardest hit. Jobs will be lost, instead of created.

The biomass power industry also works closely with the U.S. Forest Service and environmental groups to ensure that forests are properly managed and the surrounding ecosystem remains pristine. In cooperation with area environmental groups, the biomass power industry collects renewable organic waste that would otherwise be openly burned, or left as fodder for forest fires.

Earlier this year, California saw devastating forest fires rage out of control because brush and small trees were not cleared. Wildfires use this brush as a catalyst to quickly climb to the “crowns— of larger trees and spread through the forest. On average, the industry removes more than 68.8 million tons of this forest waste annually. Responsibly clearing this waste improves overall forest health and greatly reduces the risk and severity of forest fires.

Americans do not want to continue down the same road that leads to an unstable reliance on foreign oil and the uncertain consequences of global warming. Congress should support all renewable energy sources. Increasing America’s use of biomass power will create jobs and reduce greenhouse gases. Biomass power is a natural fit to meet federal renewable electricity mandates, and the foundation on which to build a clean energy economy.

Bob Cleaves is the president of the Biomass Power Association.