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Green Building News

Blows Against Two Carbon Reduction Strategies

Environmental groups challenge assumptions used to justify biomass fuel while economists lambaste federal weatherization program

Power generating stations that burn biomass, like this 21 megawatt facility near San Francisco, actually emit more carbon dioxide than coal-burning plants, according to a coalition of environmental groups.
Image Credit: Andrew Carlin

Two important underpinnings of government efforts to reduce carbon emissions and head off climate change aren’t looking like such good bets after all.

First, more than a dozen environmental groups — including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, and Friends of the Earth — have challenged the premise that burning biomass to generate electricity is better for the environment than burning coal. In fact, says a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, burning biomass produces 50% more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour than burning coal.

Second, economists studying the Weatherization Assistance Program, which is designed to reduce energy use through residential efficiency improvements, say that the program costs twice as much as it saves.

President Obama wants carbon emissions reduced by as much as 28% from 2005 levels in another 10 years, Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times, and these programs are part of the strategy for achieving that.

“These are not small setbacks,” Porter says.

Biomass is a key part of government’s plan

The Environmental Protection Agency is counting on biomass to reach carbon dioxide reductions outlined in the Clean Power Plan (CPP). But, the letter from environmental groups argues, the premise is wishful thinking and burning more wood and other forms of biomass would actually violate the Clean Air Act.

“EPA and other agencies have often treated CO2 from bioenergy differently from CO2 from fossil fuel combustion, even though CO2 from both sources has the same effect on the climate,” the letter says. “This different treatment is based on the theory that burning biomass to generate energy either results in emissions that will be recaptured as trees grow back, or avoids emissions that otherwise would have occurred if the biomass were to decompose.

“However, even if emissions are reduced by regrowth later in time, or if emissions that would have occurred later in time are avoided, the offsetting reductions are significantly delayed — on the order of years, decades, or more than a century, depending on the material used as fuel.”

The groups said burning wood and other forms of biomass produces about 3,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity, about 50% more CO2 than the emissions from a coal-fired power plant. Co-firing biomass in coal plants produces more emissions than burning coal alone and decreases the efficiency of the plant.

Environmentalists also criticized other parts of the CPP. They claimed that shifting the responsibility of accounting for carbon emissions from biomass to individual states without any guidance for how to evaluate it “would invite arbitrary results and would have no rational basis.” The EPA proposal, they said, would not require biomass plants to make sure that emissions reductions occur right away, or even within a specified time period.

Finally, they argue, the EPA’s concept of “sustainability” isn’t the same thing as accounting accurately for carbon: “Sustainability standards in the forestry context, however, generally do not consider carbon dynamics at all, and thus cannot serve as an accurate proxy for carbon accounting.”

“The organizations represented on this letter have a range of perspectives about bioenergy,” the letter said. “However, we all agree that the molecules of CO2 emitted by biomass-burning facilities warm the atmosphere and acidify the oceans just as effectively as CO2 from fossil fuels.

“Even if bioenergy emissions are eventually offset, the process of reaching net emissions parity with coal- and natural gas-fired power plants takes decades to more than a century, depending on the feedstocks used and the combustion efficiency of the facility.”

Bad news for weatherization, too

The federal Weatherization Assistance Program, or WAP, is aimed at reducing energy consumption with a range of efficiency improvements — tightening up houses to reduce air leaks, adding insulation, replacing inefficient heating equipment with newer, more efficient models, sealing ducts, and installing efficient light bulbs.

WAP is the largest energy efficiency program in the country and has helped more than 7 million low-income households since it began in 1976, according to the study by economists from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley. Households received an average of $5,150 in home improvements with no out-of-pocket costs.

The problem (according to a recent study) is that the program is ineffective.

The report studied records from 30,000 households to conclude that the upfront costs of weatherizing a house were twice as much as the energy savings. Software models projected savings about two and a half times more than actually occurred. [Editor’s note: For an in-depth analysis of the study mentioned here — an analysis that rebuts some of the claims made by the authors of the flawed study — see Is Weatherization Cost-Effective?]

“Energy efficiency investments are widely believed to offer the rare win-win opportunity,” the report says: Investments in greater efficiency should pay for themselves through energy savings alone, and by reducing energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions also should decline. But that isn’t happening.

Here are some of the report’s main findings:

  • It is hard to get people to participate in the weatherization program. “Aggressive encouragement intervention” increased participation from less than 1% in the control group to about 6% in the “encouraged group.” But the thousands of home visits, telephone calls and followup appointments added more than $1,000 of costs for each house that was weatherized.
  • Efficiency savings are “substantially less than the upfront costs.” Monthly energy consumption declined on average between 10% and 20%, but the costs were about twice as much as the money these homeowners saved.
  • Although the modest energy savings might be chalked up to the “rebound effect,” which is an increase in energy use as a result of greater efficiency, there wasn’t any evidence that homeowners were cranking up their thermostats after improvements were made.
  • The average cost per ton of avoided carbon dioxide emissions are $329 per ton, 10 times as much as the government’s estimate of the social cost of carbon — about $38 per ton.

“Across a variety of metrics, the WAP energy efficiency investments appear to be poor performers on average,” the authors said.

“From a policy perspective, WAP does not appear to pass a conventional cost-benefit test, although its full set of goals may not be reflected in such tests. On the broader question of optimal climate change policy, this paper’s findings indicate that residential energy efficiency retrofits are unlikely to provide the least expensive carbon reductions.”

Driven by hope, not science

To Porter, the reports suggest the U.S. may be barking up the wrong tree as it tries to hold the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius or less, which climate scientists consider the key to preventing serious global climate change.

“What this evidence suggests is that climate change strategies too often lack strong analytical foundations, and are driven more by hope than science,” Porter writes. “Policy makers would be making a mistake to proceed as if their favored methods are working, when the data shows they aren’t.”

He argues that policy makers and environmentalists “have hung their hopes on implausible forecasts for their favored tools,” while in reality replacing the world’s energy system within the next few decades will require intense experimentation on many fronts and a willingness to move quickly away from efforts that don’t work.

“We need experimentation that will deliver genuine breakthroughs,” Porter says. “And that requires putting wishful thinking and phobias aside and letting science guide the way.”


  1. prairieburner | | #1

    Often overlooked is the fact
    Often overlooked is the fact that plants store carbon in the soil via their roots. Although the result is delayed, the result is a net reduction in atmospheric CO2. (this is provided the burned biomass has replacements replanted; tree farming/forestry management practices are used)

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Not a credible study
    There are valid reasons to question the conclusions reached in the cited paper on weatherization cost-effectiveness.

    In my blog scheduled for publication on July 3, I'll be discussing what the authors of the paper got right, and what they got wrong.

  3. vensonata | | #3

    more nuance required
    On both these topics, wood fuel and weatherization the focus needs to be magnified. To simply say wood burning is twice as carbon intensive as coal burning is just too coarse. It may be true in some cases, but I hope the readers go away with the fact that this is a very big discussion. I will be brief though. Because of climate change large forests are affected, some by heat stress, some by drought, some by huge increases in insect infestations. This can occur anywhere in the world and is very difficult to predict. An example is British Columbia, Canada. BC is the size of California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho put together. It is covered with the largest pine forest in the world. The pine beetle has killed off 58% of the harvestable pine. The trees die and fall over and begin to decompose releasing carbon and most problematically methane, a much more potent green house gas. To do nothing would be fine if we were not on the edge of climate catastrophe. The trees are not good for lumber, but can be burned and will indeed release carbon but not methane. So that is an example of what can and will happen probably in your neighborhood soon. This is very different than harvesting green trees for biofuel electricity, very different. But the issue is huge and you will see more of it soon!
    As to weatherization. It works if done right, it does not work if done wrong! And if people leave their windows open all winter, I'll be darned if their heating bill doesn't go up!

  4. AlanB4 | | #4

    This article makes my BS
    This article makes my BS meter run on overload, i now have a headache, i'd want to read the reports and scrutinize their data because its not passing the laughable test.
    If io am wrong i want to know it, if they are wrong or starting from a conclusion and working backward they are doing a major disservice.
    If changes are needed to make actual progress then thats fine, but it almost sounds like they are saying no money should be spent in the end, only changes that pay for themselves are acceptable and if it costs money then that is not acceptable.

  5. user-1119494 | | #5

    Just off the top....
    I can easily imagine ways in which the WAP program is NOT spending funds effectively. Probably the easiest thing to do is tell folks to replace all bulbs with CFLs, but there are plenty of places where bulbs get used very little, so the payback time might be many decades. I've also seen folks with the bulbs in basement rooms (that get used five minutes per day) leave them on rather than turn them on/off and have to deal with the slow ramp-up of light output: an incandescent would use far less energy... at less capital cost!

    That said, I have NO actual first-hand information about the study and reserve the right to be completely wrong in every respect.

  6. norm_farwell | | #6

    The WAP study looks like a BAU con job
    It's unfortunate, but as with tobacco, there's clearly a lot of propaganda designed to confuse people and sabotage attempts at energy progress. Or worse, co-opt them for profit. In fact, because the stakes are so much greater, we should expect much more of this than we saw with tobacco. I'd put last weeks unfortunate blog about how Goldman Sachs will save us in that category. I'll be curious to see Martin's critique, but just a cursory look at the resumes of the authors of the WAP study should be enough to set alarm bells off.

    One author, Michael Greenstone, is the Milton Friedman Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. The Chicago School has been a relentless advocate for free-market ideology for decades. Greenstone's own website lists a recent study "Adapting to Climate Change" that documents how air conditioning technology has lead to a decline in heat-related deaths in spite rising temperatures. Don't worry about climate change, we have AC. Brilliant, maybe he'll get a Nobel prize.

    Catherine Wolfram's bio lists her in 2009-2010 as "Co-Principal Investigator, 'The Design and Implementation of U.S. Climate Policy' (with Don Fullerton), funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation." Smith Richardson is likewise a well-known right wing propaganda outlet that gives generously to Yale and Harvard and the American Enterprise Institute in order to advance a conservative/neo-conservative agenda.

    This idea that energy conservation can't work, that government (or we the people) can't solve the problem, that we need a new fossil fuel (natural gas) to save us from the old fossil fuel, and that only by unleashing the magic of market innovation and the power of private capital can we solve the climate crisis seems to be cropping up more and more lately. This looks like the revenge of Business as Usual, like some kind of B-movie zombie, every time you think it's almost buried it pops out of the grave again.

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