Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wanted: A Guide Dog, Not A Watch Dog

There have been debates about how involved the government should be in overseeing the development and implementation of renewable energy projects in the U.S. The E.P.A. already regulates emissions and some think it should take on a larger role to ensure that new technologies reduce the carbon footprint. Here at Better BTU, we’ve studied this matter in depth and continue to debate amongst ourselves. One thing we call all agree on is that it might be good to take a page from the European Union’s book.

In 2009, the European Commission established the Renewable Energy Directive, a committee that studied and reported on sustainability criteria for biomass. While the Commission elected to adopt a report on sustainability requirements for use of solid biomass and biogas in electricity and heating, they stopped just short of making it legally binding. 

Biomass Technology Group, out of The Netherlands, compiled a report for the Commission in February 2008 on the benefits and drawbacks of sustainability criteria as well as certification systems for biomass production. The study acknowledged that while biomass certification would guarantee greenhouse gas savings and protect biodiversity such as high conservation forests and wildlife habitats, the cost would form a serious barrier to small biomass producers.

Instead, the Renewable Energy Directive asked each member of the EU to file a national action plan yearly and recommended criteria relating to, among other things:

(b) a common greenhouse gas calculation methodology which could be used to ensure that minimum greenhouse gas savings from biomass are at least 35 percent (rising to 50 percent in 2017 and 60 percent in 2018 for new installations) compared to the E.U.’s fossil energy mix

The goal of this strategy is to advise member states on development in order to minimize risk of “varied and possibly incompatible criteria at the national level, leading to barriers to trade and limiting the growth of the bioenergy sector in the European Union.”

On this side of the pond, 17 of 50 states have adopted a Renewable Portfolio Standard that mandates that by 2020 a certain percentage of the state’s energy come from renewable energy sources. The states are free to pursue this goal in any matter, and while we like that it promotes growth in the industry through trial and error, it also lacks an overarching set of standards to help customers understand exactly what they are purchasing.

We’ve discussed the need for a standardization of language in the past (see Gasification: Definition, Please! and Definition Please - Part II) but we also would like to see a set of standards for calculating greenhouse gases so that you can compare technologies across a baseline. Currently, there is quite a bit of variety on how companies arrive at these numbers (ex. Is the fuel consumed by transportation or processing outside the biomass facility included?).

Environmental Protection Agency Watch Dog?
At Better BTU, we all agree that what we need is more leadership, not more regulations. Whether that leadership comes in the form of a government committee set up to develop a national roadmap for states to achieve its renewable energy goals or a non-partisan third party institute remains to be agreed upon. There are concerns that if it becomes a governmental issue, it will end up being run by the E.P.A. which has become known for being more political than practical.

We recognize that what works for Alabama won’t work for Wyoming and we don’t want to create a mold that everyone must try to fit in. But a group that can create a national roadmap for sustainability through clarification of definitions and rules of engagement could be exactly the type of guide dog this country needs.

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  1. The EPA would love nothing more than to regulate all forms of gasification, so as to stifle and control them.

    Pick any example of any industry that they regulate and it can be shown that over time where they are defined the emission they then went on to regulate and control them.

    In innovation and establishing any new industry it is always better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.

  2. So far as I'm concerned the use of "waste materials" for pyrolysis or gasification shouldn't be regulated as such. There will be battles between the compost industry and biomass industry for these resources, but as there will also be some crossover between the companies I think this issue will work itself out. The question then will become about management practices for our private and national forests and ensuring that we are not subsidizing food crops for energy use.

    These are issues that already have some government over site. As the elected government is largely dominated by oil/coal interests I'm not sure that more government regulation is the solution.