Maryland Looks into Biomass Energy Potential

Maryland’s Department of Energy Clean Energy Center is sponsoring a series of five webinars on the “future potential for biomass energy” harvested from Maryland’s forests.

According to the Institute for Energy Research, “biomass is living or recently dead biological matter that can be used for fuel or industrial production.”

Examples of forestry biomass would include branches, saplings, wood chips, and miscellaneous detritus as well as harvested trees. Unlike some sources of energy, biomass is renewable. Biomass energy sources, historically, have been wood, waste from municipal solid waste, manufacturing waste, gas produced by landfills, and alcohol fuels.

In addition to those traditional sources, biomass energy is now produced from corn, plant matter, such as switch grass and hemp, and animal fats.

Some of the advantages of biomass energy include wide and renewable availability, carbon neutrality and reduction of garbage to landfills.

For the June 16 webinar, the third in the series, four speakers discussed the potential impact of harnessing forest biomass to provide clean energy for Maryland.

According to the Clean Energy Center, forest management can contribute to improving air quality and protecting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The center is attempting to educate the stakeholders to the proper processing and tools, which will make woody biomass materials marketable as a source for thermal energy generation.

According to Kenneth Jolly, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service, the webinars highlight available technologies, economic issues, and ease of use of biomass energy solutions to benefit Maryland’s commerce and residents.

The speakers addressed basics of forest carbon accounting, including the critical role of scale and time, how wise forestry can help enlist Maryland’s forests in the battle to reverse climate change, and state policies and laws for climate action and the use of woody biomass to create clean energy.

Dan Rider, with Maryland Forest Service, pointed out that Maryland’s rural areas would exercise better management of private land forests if low-grade wood could be used for energy, among other purposes, to gain economic benefits. Practical landowners want to know the costs and benefits of maintaining forested land.

Rider calmed fears that an increased market demand for wood would lead to deforestation.

“There’s no way possible that any energy markets can lead to deforestation,” he said.

Maryland’s forests are increasing at a rate of 2.6% over the rate of tree removal. Sawmills, landfills, loggers, arborists, manufacturers and aggregators will quickly see the economic benefits if the biomass they produce has a market and there’s reasonable price stability in that market.

Loggers could replace the recent decline in low-grade wood markets with the energy producers who would provide a stable, long-term market for forest biomass. There is an argument to be made for successful balancing of forest management, energy production and biomass marketing.

Kendall DeLyser and Dr. Elliot Campbell with American Forests and Maryland Department of Natural Resources respectively, presented on the relationship between forest management and carbon accounting.

Campbell gave an overview of Maryland’s policies and goals set by those policies as they relate to Maryland’s forests and the use of biomass harvested from these forests.

He noted that the Maryland Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2009 set greenhouse gas reductions at 25% by 2020 and 40% by 2030. Campbell pointed out that by 2017, Maryland had achieved the 25% goal or 43 million metric tons of CO2e. Forest biomass use for energy contributed to that early success. While woody biomass is included in the plan, there is no projection of greenhouse gas benefit.

Facilities to process energy from biomass are lacking in Maryland.

Campbell notes that no new biomass-to-energy facilities have been built in Maryland since 2006. However, Gov. Larry Hogan’s Clean & Renewable Energy Standards include woody biomass as a potential renewable energy source. If facilities are available, Campbell said that woody biomass could meet 1% of Maryland’s energy demands, and that percentage could be higher if Maryland’s facilities accepted woody biomass imported from other states.

According to Campbell, carbon sequestration decreased 17% in Maryland’s forests from 2006-2016.

Maryland’s forests are less effectively sequestering carbon due in part to loss of forests (1% decrease during those years) and increases in invasive species, pests and disease, and the deer population. In addition, saw mills have closed, forested land is being lost to urbanization, and well-intended regulations are discouraging the expansion of forested land.

According to the U.S. Forestry Service, the biggest impact, however, may be the aging of Maryland’s forests. Seventy-eight percent of the forested land is now mature trees.

The expansion of forest management is critical to reverse the collapse of forest carbon sequestration. To encourage private landowners to manage their forested property, the state could encourage the development of markets for forest products. The Department of Natural Resources is developing an economic adjustment strategy to respond to these problems.

DeLyser spoke broadly about the complexities of Biogenic Carbon Accounting. Concepts such as the “proportion of feedstock emissions offset during feedstock growth timelines,” available acreage and species, management practices (forestry) and types of trees — all of which must be calculated to determine carbon sequestration statistics. These important calculations made in this carbon biomass accounting will impact critical decisions concerning Maryland’s forests: their management, energy systems, forest and energy policies and markets.

Christopher Beck, with the Maryland Department of the Environment, pointed out that any plan for Maryland’s forests must have a positive impact on the state’s economy.

He echoed Campbell’s assertion, saying “increased and better-managed forests generate biomass and sequester more carbon.”

Beck acknowledge the complexity of accounting for carbon sequestration from biomass, and he noted that the department is working with the departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture to come up with better tools for prediction and better methods of achieving both environmental and economic goals.

The Renewable Portfolio Standards instituted in Maryland “requires electricity suppliers to meet prescribed minimum portions of their retail electricity sales with various renewable energy sources.” Forest biomass will qualify to meet those standards.