As Virginia tries to figure out biomass’ carbon footprint, limited data poses problems

Environmental, forestry, utility representatives are analyzing the carbon impact of the form of electricity generation

By: - October 13, 2023 1:50 pm

Logs at the International Paper facility in Franklin, Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

As a Department of Forestry workgroup tries to determine the carbon footprint of biomass, the woody materials burned to generate electricity, it is running into problems obtaining information from Dominion Energy on how the utility procures the different types of material it uses.

In 2023, environmental groups agreed to drop their opposition to a law that pushed back a deadline for most of the state’s biomass plants to close in exchange for a state “life-cycle carbon analysis” of biomass.

Virginia groups struck a deal on biomass plants. Amendments from Youngkin are more controversial.

But as that work has gotten underway, the group has struggled to get information about exactly what types of wood are being harvested for biomass or burned at biomass facilities. Dominion has said the data is “market sensitive,” and Virginia’s state forester has indicated contracts with the utility could also prevent the Virginia Loggers Association from sharing some of its information.

“If they have the information it would help if they could share it,” said David Carr, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in an interview with the Mercury. “It’s an important piece of information.”

The holdup comes as the workgroup, composed of forestry, logger, environmental and Dominion representatives, has less than two months to complete its work.

Biomass refers to the use of forest material or forest, saw- and paper mill residuals to generate electricity. Dominion operates three biomass facilities in Altavista, Hopewell and Southampton — commonly referred to as “the triplets” — that generate 51 megawatts each and burns some biomass at the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center. Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative has a 49.9 megawatt biomass facility in Halifax. Two paper mills, WestRock in Covington and International Paper in Franklin, also use their residual material to generate electricity for their facilities. 

In 2020, the Virginia Clean Economy Act ordered that Dominion shut down the “triplet” biomass plants by 2028 as part of the sweeping legislation seeking to decarbonize the electric grid by 2050. But that deadline was removed by last session’s legislation.

During a workgroup meeting Thursday, Dominion said it doesn’t expect to close the facilities anytime soon, and recent long-term planning documents call for continued use of them to meet growing electricity demand from data centers. 

“There was a significant demand increase,” said Elizabeth Willoughby, an environmental consultant for Dominion Energy and a member of the working group.

Deciding the data

The life cycle analysis is seen as a tool to help inform decision-makers on the future of biomass by determining its carbon impact beginning with the process of harvesting woody material and continuing all the way through to its combustion to generate electricity.

As the Virginia workgroup begins its analysis, Dominion has provided a range of 1 to 1.5 million tons of material being used at its facilities. But what the group is lacking from the utility is information on what type of biomass that is: forest residuals like branches and residuals from Virginia’s saw- and paper mills. 

That information can be critical to understanding how biomass can impact the environment, workgroup members noted. 

For example, material left over from logging that is not used for biomass also releases carbon, but more gradually than it would if burned for electricity generation. If most of the material being used for biomass is forested materials, it could indicate the presence of biomass plants is incentivizing the harvesting of trees, blunting forests’ sequestration capabilities. And the carbon impact of burning biomass at a plant with control technology is different from the impact of open-air burning of wood waste left on logged areas. 

Prior to the meeting Thursday, Willoughby provided data on emissions from Dominion’s three facilities. At the meeting, she said the utility would look into what it could provide about the biomass source mix, but balked at providing specifics about the makeup of the material the utility uses, saying public disclosure of the information is “market sensitive.”

“It would provide info about buying commodities and make information available to the public,” she said. “That’s not something we are able to do.” 

We have confidentiality agreements with our fuel suppliers that prevent us from sharing their proprietary information.

– Dominion Energy spokesman Jeremy Slayton

Jeremy Slayton, a spokesperson for Dominion, told the Mercury the company understands “why details of the proprietary blends of materials used to generate energy at specific locations could be valuable.”

However, he said, “it is not publicly available at that level of detail.” 

“We have confidentiality agreements with our fuel suppliers that prevent us from sharing their proprietary information,” Slayton continued. “Comprehensive representations of the information can be found in other sources, including a recent statewide study completed by Virginia Tech and Forest Inventory Analysis data.”

Jim Fava, an expert who has been involved with life-cycle analyses since the early 1990s, said the information from Dominion about the proportions of the biomass it uses is critical to the analysis.

“It’s like mining and not knowing what is being mined,” he said.

Other information could also be lacking. Virginia State Forester Rob Farrell said contracts between the Virginia Loggers Association and Dominion may preclude the organization from sharing information about the materials they supply for burning. 

Attempts to reach the Virginia Loggers Association were unsuccessful.

Members of the workgroup said the information from the loggers is critical because it will show whether loggers are cutting trees specifically for use in electricity generation or are primarily supplying the utilities with less desirable woody materials left over from other logging operations. 

Corey Connors, executive director of the Virginia Forestry Association and a workgroup member, told the Mercury the biomass market is critical for using up waste wood materials, including bark and chips.

“When we go in and harvest a tree, what we’ve been able to do in the sustainability model that we have built as an industry, is try to utilize that tree as much as possible,” Connors said. “It makes all the sense in the world if that would otherwise be landfilled to use that for energy generation.”

But, for Carr, the up to 1.5 million tons of woody material Dominion needs for its three plants means that additional harvesting is happening.


“While some may argue that biomass demand creates no additional harvest, the reality is that trees are being cut and burned in the power plants,” Carr said. “The tree’s carbon is released directly into the atmosphere.”

During the meeting, while Farrell noted “biomass in and of itself is not driving forest harvesting in Virginia,” he said “it may be influencing harvesting in Virginia.”

With potential gaps in information, the workgroup may fall back for its analysis on other studies that have been conducted, including one out of the University of Minnesota that included an analysis of the miles traveled in transporting material.

“I think this workgroup has a heavy responsibility to complete a complex analysis in an extremely short timeframe,” Judy Dunscomb, a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy and member of the workgroup, told the Mercury after the meeting.

How critical is the LCA? 

Fava said the data and questions the Virginia workgroup is pursuing will produce valuable insight.

Given concerns about confidentiality, he said it may be possible to use averages or nondisclosure agreements that could help the workgroup reach conclusions but not make proprietary information available for public consumption.

Furthermore, while Virginia is asking the question of where replacement electricity would come from if the biomass facilities were to shutter, the life-cycle analysis could go further by looking at the carbon and environmental footprint of those alternative energy sources, including solar, wind and fossil fuels, he said. Or the analysis could be coupled with another study on social costs, such as expenses for health impacts from emissions, or economic inputs, such as job creation. 

“That’s why we say it’s critical, but not sufficient,” Fava said. “To ensure that there are no unattended consequences, multiple impacts besides carbon should be included.”

This story was corrected with the spelling of Corey Connors, executive director of the Virginia Forestry Association.


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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.