What is Biomass?

by Dianne Saxe on May 24, 2009

Now that interest in green energy is hot, everyone is trying to define “biomass”. This may be the most politically sensitive definition in the GEA, and probes numerous sensitive questions about what should count as “green”. For example, is corn-based ethanol “green”? What about burning old growth trees?  What if the trees were killed by mountain pine beetle? Is it green to burn tires? Or garbage?
While Ontario struggles to produce its own Green Energy Act definition, which will be laundry -list style, it’s worth taking a quick survey of the definitions already in use.

Current definitions range from the really brief, e.g. Electrical Retailing- Disclosure to Consumers Regulation:

“biomass” means biological materials, including gases generated from the decomposition of biological material;

or BC’s Environmental Management Act  – Cleaner Gasoline Regulation:

“biomass” means material that is produced solely from grains, plants, trees or biological refuse, but does not include any material produced from petroleum;

to the slightly more complete Ontario Corporations Tax Act:

“biomass resource” means,

(a) organic matter that is derived from a plant and available on a renewable basis, including organic matter derived from dedicated energy crops, dedicated trees, agricultural food and feed crops, or

(b) waste organic material from harvesting or processing agricultural products, including animal waste and rendered animal fat, forestry products, including wood waste, and sewage.

Quebec takes the laundry list approach in its

For the purposes of this Regulation, “biomass” means biodegradable residual materials rejected or not accepted following reclamation activities and intended for disposal in landfill sites or incinerators, recovered biodegradable residual materials for which other reclamation methods are not technically possible or in whose respect the costs related to the other reclamation methods are detrimental to the competitiveness of the promoter or the operator, and the residual forest biomass constituted of bark, sawdust, planing chips, primary, secondary and de-inking sludge, cooking liquors from pulp and paper mills, pruning or thinning residues and logging residues, branches and tree tops.

In the US, the definition of biomass has been hotly contended, and has resulted in much more detail in Rep. Waxman’s American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, HR 2454:

The term ‘renewable biomass’ means any of the following:

(A) Plant material, including waste material, harvested or collected from actively managed agricultural land that was in cultivation, cleared, or fallow and nonforested on the date of enactment of this section;

(B) Plant material, including waste material, harvested or collected from pastureland that was nonforested on such date of enactment;

(C) Nonhazardous vegetative matter derived from waste, including separated yard waste, landscape right-of-way trimmings, construction and demolition debris or food waste (but not municipal solid waste, recyclable waste paper, painted, treated or pressurized wood, or wood contaminated with plastic or metals);

(D) Animal waste or animal byproducts, including products of animal waste digesters;

(E) Algae;

(F) Trees, brush, slash, residues, or anyother vegetative matter removed from within 600 feet of any building, campground, or route designated for evacuation by a public official with responsibility for emergency preparedness, or from within 300 feet of a paved road, electric transmission line, utility tower, or water supply line;

(G) Residues from or byproducts of milled logs;

(H) Any of the following removed from forested land that is not Federal and is not high conservation priority land:

(i) Trees, brush, slash, residues, interplanted energy crops, or any other vegetative matter removed from an actively managed tree plantation established—

(I) prior to the date of enactment of this section; or

(II) on land that, as of the date of enactment of this section, was cultivated or fallow and non- forested.

(ii) Trees, logging residue, thinnings, cull trees, pulpwood, and brush removed from naturally-regenerated forests or other non-plantation forests, including for the purposes of hazardous fuel reduction or preventative treatment for reducing or containing insect or disease infestation.

(iii) Logging residue, thinnings, cull trees, pulpwood, brush and species that are non-native and noxious, from stands that were planted and managed after the date of enactment of this section to restore or maintain native forest types.

(iv) Dead or severely damaged trees removed within 5 years of fire, blowdown, or other natural disaster, and badly infested trees;

(I) Materials, pre-commercial thinnings, or removed invasive species from National Forest System land and public lands (as defined in section 103 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (43 U.S.C. 1702)), including those that are byproducts of preventive treatments (such as trees, wood, brush, thinnings, chips, and slash), that are removed as part of a federally recognized timber sale, or that are removed to reduce hazardous fuels, to reduce or contain disease or insect infestation, or to restore ecosystem health, and that are—

(i) not from components of the National Wilderness Preservation System,Wilderness Study Areas, Inventoried Roadless Areas, old growth or mature forest stands, components of the National Landscape Conservation System, National Monuments, National Conservation Areas,1Designated Primitive Areas, or Wild and Scenic Rivers corridors;

(ii) harvested in environmentally sustainable quantities, as determined by the appropriate Federal land manager; and

(iii) harvested in accordance with Federal and State law and applicable land management plans.

And every one of these clauses represents a tough series of choices. Those struggling with the definition have good reason to be concerned- getting this one right can have a big impact on how green energy works in practice.

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