Mongabay-Amid calls for developed nations to phase out coal use by 2030, and for developing countries to do likewise by 2040, cofiring energy production — mixing coal with woody biomass — has emerged as a go-to, near-term climate policy fix in some of Asia’s chronically coal-dependent countries, where forest biomass burning is booming. But that solution has its problems, say analysts.

Both coal and woody biomass produce high levels of carbon emissions. But international carbon accounting rules based on controversial out-of-date science allow all smokestack discharges from wood to be counted as carbon neutral — a policy loophole, say critics, that guarantees cofiring’s reduced emissions on paper, if not in reality. Others argue cofiring is the only way some nations can realize their coal cuts.

In fact, scientists have determined that woody biomass is less carbon-efficient than coal, as it generates more CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour of electricity produced than coal.

The result of the big shift to cofiring isn’t a cut in emissions, but rather an ongoing period of “carbon debt” that will contribute to increased planetary “warming for decades to centuries” before trees can eventually regrow, according to a February 2021 open letter from more than 500 scientists to the leaders of biomass-burning nations.

Those scientists urgently warn that waiting for all those burned trees to be replaced by newly planted saplings, and for those young trees to then grow to maturity in order to sequester as much carbon as was originally burned, is time that the world just doesn’t have.

Cofiring: Two Asian nations lead the way

Cofiring is practiced today to some degree around the globe, but parts of Asia have embraced the technology heavily. The leading coal-biomass burners in the region are South Korea and Japan, which turned to cofiring following the establishment of new renewable energy incentives introduced in 2012.

Although both countries have scaled back government support for new cofiring projects in recent years, power producers and many officials still appear to see the coal-wood combo as a way to keep coal-fired plants running in the face of ever-stricter energy policies.

Japanese energy industry actors are also promoting cofiring elsewhere in Asia. One such place is Indonesia, where the state-owned utility, PLN, plans to implement cofiring to meet the country’s 2025 renewable energy target. Analysis by researchers and climate advocates say this cofiring initiative will require up to 10 million metric tons of biomass fuel, potentially putting pressure on the nation’s native forests.


Indonesia turns to cofiring as 2025 renewable energy target looms

In early 2020, Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (MEMR) and national utility PLN announced their intention to cofire biomass at PLN’s coal-fired power plants by 2025. Although the plan has seen a couple of iterations, currently the utility intends to cofire using 10% biomass at 52 of its 114 coal plants.

Cofiring can be seen as a way for Indonesia to “buy time” to achieve its energy targets, said Putra Adhiguna, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), who authored a February 2021 report on cofiring in Indonesia.

The country aims to increase renewables to 23% of its energy mix by 2025, up from 12% in 2021. But “     the only way that we can [achieve] that number is by selling something that’s half possible,” said Putra, who noted that scarcity of affordable, efficient biomass fuel — especially that which can be sourced sustainably — could prevent cofiring from being implemented as planned. So far, the government has said it will not provide subsidies for biomass fuel.

Thirteen coal plants had commercially implemented cofiring by March 2021, at a 1% to 5% cofiring ratio, according to MEMR. Rice husks and sawdust waste were the most common biomass fuels produced — not whole trees turned into wood pellets, a practice common in the U.S. Southeast.

Estimates for how much biomass fuel would be required to achieve PLN’s cofiring target range from 4 million to 9 million metric tons, according to Putra’s analysis, or up to 10.2 million metric tons, an estimate that Indonesian nonprofit Trend Asia shared with Mongabay. This “will require nothing less than the creation of a large-scale biomass [production] industry,” Putra wrote in his IEEFA report.

Because the available existing volume of waste organic products coming from forestry and agriculture are limited, energy crop tree plantations represent one option for producing the required big increase in fuel volume. Trend Asia estimates 2.3 million hectares (5.7 million acres) of energy plantations — roughly 1% of Indonesia’s landmass — would be needed to grow all 10.2 million tons of biomass. Burning the wood from those plantations will add to Earth’s carbon debt, contributing to global warming.

Sarah Augustio, a researcher with Trend Asia, warned that enlarged energy crops could lead to new deforestation. “We can imagine another plant, like palm oil, will come to Indonesia, and maybe we will lose our natural forest,” she said.

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Photo by: Melvinas Priananda/Trend Asia