Senate Bill 221’s alternative energy standard mandates that 25 percent of the power sold in Ohio must be generated from “alternative energy sources.” Further, the law requires utilities to meet half of the alternative energy standard—12.5 percent—with “renewable energy resources,” including wind, solar, hydro, and biomass-based generation.
But the resource with the most potential—biomass—may also be the one that is the most difficult to regulate.
Biomass material includes resources that were recently living–such as wood chips or switch grass. Using biomass to generate the heat needed to produce power can numerous emissions benefits. In theory, when compared to coal, biomass combustion for electricity generation can achieve significant reductions in sulfur dioxide as well as in net CO2 emissions. There is also a near large supply of biomass waste, such as fallen trees, grass clippings, or manure.
But there could also be some potential problems in utilizing biomass as a major source of fuel. Most importantly, it is not clear under the PUCO’s current rules that using biomass will result in reduced emissions.
Because there are unanswered questions, we’ve intervened in a few of the major biomass applications submitted by Ohio utilities. Among the questions that we want to be answered are: what is the source of the biomass material; what standards will be used to ensure that the material is collected or harvested in a sustainable manner; and, most importantly, what will be the total carbon output from a biomass-based project?
These questions are critical because, in our opinion, the renewable energy requirements imply that the generation must meet a sustainability test. That is, a utility should not receive renewable credit for utilizing a fuel procurement process that contributes to widespread deforestation without any net reductions in carbon emissions.
Among other things, the PUCO should implement a “sourcing standard,” which would require the harvesting, transport, and combustion of biomass material to be conducted in a sustainable way. This would be a way to ensure that biomass-based energy comes from is truly renewable, resulting in reduced carbon and other air emissions.