A Free-Market Energy Blog

“Is Biomass Dead?” (niche generator struggles)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- February 19, 2020

“While the biomass bonanza from plants like Covanta’s in California may be dead, byproducts such as biomethane, and other applications such as the utilization of biomass vegetation to create biochar … do show promise in more selective operations.”

Over the years, posts at MasterResource have documented the environmental problems of wood/plant/garbage-generated electricity, as well as opposition from environmental groups. Biomass is “the air pollution renewable.”

Last summer, Kennedy Maize documented the lost luster of government-enabled waste-to-energy power plants, such as the Wheelabrator plant near Baltimore and the Detroit Renewable Energy plant.

“Waste-to-energy had a 15-year heyday, driven in part by the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA),” Maize explained. “The law essentially created the non-utility generating industry.” He continued:

Many local governments had long incinerated garbage to reduce volumes flowing to landfills, but that provoked public opposition due to air pollution. With PURPA, developers began seeing a way to incinerate garbage in a technologically and environmentally sound fashion, generate electricity, and use the new law to force electric utilities to, reluctantly, buy the output.

That was the waste-to-energy story, another failure in the long quest of government policy to make the uneconomic economic.

In Power magazine this month, Jim Romeo updated the decline of this uneconomic (vs. natural-gas combined cycle) and air emissions renewable alternative. “Is Biomass Dead?” begins with the story of the 50 MW Covanta Biomass Plant in California, “once a crown jewel for the prospect of sustainable energy in California.” Closed since 2015, this plant will be joined by like facilities that are retired or soon will be.

Citing the Energy Information Administration, Romeo notes that power from biomass and waste totaled 2 percent of total U.S. electricity generation, down from its peak in 2014. Subsidized wind and solar too are pushing out biomass.

Then comes the open question of carbon dioxide reductions. “From an environmental perspective, biomass energy faces greater challenges than other renewable resources due to the ongoing controversy surrounding the question of whether CO2 emitted from combusting biomass is … ‘carbon neutral,’” noted one environmental attorney quoted by Romeo.

Biomass remains “workable,” Romeo concludes. But the energy landscape is littered with technological viable generation that failed the economic test. Remove government subsidies, and biomass, industrial wind turbines, and on-grid solar will all but become become relics as well.

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