Home Energy and Environment Virginia Admits Biomass Isn’t Carbon Neutral, But Treats It As Zero Emissions...

Virginia Admits Biomass Isn’t Carbon Neutral, But Treats It As Zero Emissions in Climate Plan

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Cross-posted with permission from the Partnership for Policy Integrity blog

It might seem like nothing but good news for the environment that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration is moving closer to capping CO2 emissions from power plants, but as with most industry-dominated regulatory processes, of course there’s a catch.

Today, the state’s Air Pollution Control Board is likely to approve a plan that would join up Virginia to the Northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a 9-state emissions-trading consortium.[1] The plan’s goal is to reduce emissions from electricity generation by 30%, which may be a politically tenable start, though it is inadequate compared to the scale of emissions reductions required to actually mitigate climate change. Taking the plan as it is, however, there are several significant loopholes and giveaways  to highly polluting power generators that reduce its effectiveness. Virginia ought to close these gaps as soon as possible.

The main problem is scope: the plan simply doesn’t apply to facilities that produce about 25% of the state’s electric sector emissions, including wood-burning power plants, of which Virginia has several. There is the NOVEC Halifax County biomass plant, three coal plants that Dominion converted to burn wood, Dominion’s Virginia City “hybrid” plant that can burn up to 20% wood, making it one of the largest wood-consumers on the east coast, and Dominion’s Pittsylvania plant, now in idle mode. Combined, these plants burn millions of tons of wood a year and emit millions of tons of CO2. Other plants excluded from the plan include power plants less than 25 MW in capacity, municipal waste incinerators burning around 2 million tons of garbage a year, and industrial facilities, including some of the biggest polluters in the state, like the Westrock Covington plant, which gets millions each year in renewable energy subsidies despite being a bigger source of air toxics than Virginia’s coal plants.[2] As we observed in our April 2018 comments on the plan, “the WestRock Covington plant would presumably be exempted under the industrial exemption as a plant that generates on-site heat and power. This facility is recorded by EIA as burning natural gas, bituminous coal, distillate fuel oil, residual fuel oil, black liquor, and wood, and was responsible for 7% of VA’s power sector CO2 emissions in 2016. The company brought a new 75 MW wood-fueled generator online in 2013, which led to a dramatic increase in wood consumption and emissions. The facility is a large source of conventional pollution, and has recently been penalized by EPA for excessive particulate matter emissions.”

The exemption for wood-burning power plants is particularly problematic. While biomass power plants emit more carbon pollution per megawatt-hour than fossil-fired plants (Figure 1), Virginia’s carbon plan treats biomass as “carbon neutral,” or having zero CO2 emissions. This serves as an incentive for fossil fueled plants to convert to burning trees as fuel, as Dominion already did when it converted the Altavista, Southampton, and Hopewell coal plants to wood and thereby began to rake in millions in renewable energy subsidies.[3] Not surprisingly, Dominion and others lobbied for Virginia’s exemption for wood-burning emissions.[4]

Figure 1. The CO2 emission rate for the wood-fired boiler at Dominion’s Pittsylvania plant, versus emission rates for different fuels at the Dominion Chesterfield plant.

Burning forest wood for energy has been controversial because of these emissions and because of the damage it is doing to the forest carbon sink. As we highlighted in detailed comments to the VA Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) last year, climate science shows we need to dramatically increase forest carbon uptake to control climate change, and burning forest wood does just the opposite – it injects forest carbon into the atmosphere where it warms the climate just as effectively as fossil carbon.

The Northam administration’s treatment of biomass as carbon neutral aligns it with the Trump EPA that is pushing a similar idea, despite the conclusion of its own Science Advisory Board that biomass is not carbon neutral. However, the Northam administration apparently understands its policy is unjustifiable because its DEQ twisted itself into knots trying to explain its decision.  “DEQ has not taken the position that biomass is carbon neutral,” the agency wrote in a recent updated version of its regulations, “but it has made it clear the applicability of this program is not appropriate for biomass at this time. As a matter of science, forest biomass energy is not carbon neutral and can have other negative environmental impacts. While biomass represents a miniscule fraction of the electricity generation in the Commonwealth, DEQ would view a significant shift toward the use of forest biomass for power generation as a negative development. DEQ will be monitoring trends and reserves the right to use existing authority to regulate carbon emissions from biomass in the future (bold added).” In other words, the DEQ does not believe that biomass is carbon neutral, but will treat biomass as if it is carbon neutral.

DEQ said that its decision to count biomass emissions as zero was due to the fact that foundational documents, including former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Executive Directive, were aimed at reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuel-fired facilities, only. But the directive mentioned only the need for “reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electric power facilities” – it did not mention the words “fossil-fuel fired.”

It is further worth noting that biomass is not a “miniscule” fraction of generation in Virginia.  Non-industrial wood-burning plants alone are responsible for 3.3% of the state’s generation, but if the CO2 emissions were counted, this would add about another 5.7% to total emissions, because the emission rate per megawatt-hour is so much higher than from fossil fuels (for data and calculations, see our comments to the state from April 2018).

There is nothing stopping Virginia from covering wood-burning in the carbon trading plan, and in fact, VA’s exemption for biomass puts it at odds with RGGI’s approach. RGGI is weak when it comes to regulating carbon dioxide emissions from biomass, but it does not exempt biomass entirely. The program requires member states to count emissions from coal plants converted to biomass and plants that co-fire biomass with coal unless the biomass is deemed “sustainable.”  RGGI allows states to define what “sustainable” means, and of the existing members, New York defined it to consider carbon impacts of forest harvesting. That means the Fort Drum biomass plant in New York, a former coal-burner that converted to biomass, is required to document the biomass it burns, and pay for carbon allowances on the fuel that does not qualify. Last fall, Virginia appeared to have decided to make its regulations consistent with RGGI by counting biomass emissions from co-firing, which would have covered the Dominion Virginia City plant, only, but it made a U-turn this spring by choosing complete exemption. To make real progress on climate change, Virginia has much more work to do, including standing up to Dominion.


[1] A potential roadblock is recently passed legislation that would prevent Virginia from joining RGGI, but if Gov. Northam vetoes that, then it’s full speed ahead.

[2] Information on the Covington plant’s toxic emissions from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-marylands-renewable-energy-law-subsidizes-virginias-dirty-air/2018/12/28/07704890-ffc5-11e8-862a-b6a6f3ce8199_story.html?utm_term=.248fb3ee330b.

[3] Brown, M.A. et al. 2018. Working Paper # 93 The Economics of Four Virginia Biomass Plants. Georgia Tech Ivan Allen College School of Public Policy. At https://cepl.gatech.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/Biomass%20Economics-Working%20Paper%20%2393%20%281%29.pdf

[4] See, e.g., Dominion Energy comments on 9VAC5-140. Regulation for Emissions Trading Programs submitted to Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (April 9, 2018), at 4.