Wood Biomass Projects Advance in U.S.

Just as the Traverse City Record-Eagle aims another editorial broadside to block the local utility’s decision to pursue a right-sized, state-of-the-art, clean, renewable 10 mw wood biomass plant, evidence of public support emerges from other states where the technology is being pursued with vigor.

The new wood biomass projects are a clear indication that momentum for the technology and fuel source is pushing ahead despite misplaced public opposition in a number of states, including Michigan. The key issue in managing growing numbers of new biomass plants is the fuel supply. Clearly, damaging forests to generate power is in nobody’s interest. The same is true for not ensuring sustainable forest practices to produce a steady supply of wood that keeps prices stable. One reason that Traverse City Light and Power is considering wood biomass is that the price of natural gas has been so volatile in recent years.biomass

For reasons that may never be clear to me, northwest Michigan’s largest daily newspaper has embraced the hysterical (forests will be “slaughtered), and factless (ash is toxic, emissions are higher than a coal-fired plant) reasoning of a group of extremely ill-informed environmentalists to argue against the TCL&P wood biomass proposal. Today it published a report from Cadillac, 45 miles south of here, where wood biomass has generated power for decades. Though editors emphasized the more emphatic views of some residents, the reporter actually found considerable comfort with the old plant, even those close to the plant. The paper never mentioned that the state-of-the-art plant proposed by TCL&P is much smaller, much newer, much cleaner.

Fortunately a more informed and pragmatic view about the value of state-of-the-art biomass generation is starting to emerge. A public opinion survey by Northwestern Michigan College shows 55 percent of the utility’s customers support the wood biomass proposal, a finding that was not covered by the Record-Eagle. The mayor of Traverse City, environmental lawyer Chris Bzdok, supports the biomass proposal, as does the director of the state Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth. The Record-Eagle, which closely reports on every statement made by critics, also didn’t cover the public meeting that featured the DELEG director’s endorsement. The Michigan Land Use Institute issued a report several weeks ago that called for greater focus on energy efficiency and found room for what it called a small wood biomass plant like that proposed by TCL&P.

Full disclosure: I helped TCL&P design and execute its public engagement process. When weighing the options for generating baseload power, something that TCL&P customers need, the utility has three choices: coal, the dirtiest fuel of all; natural gas, which is not renewable and subject to price swings; and wood biomass. The latter proposal is right-scaled, local, fueled with sustainable forest practices, generates much lower emissions than coal, is highly efficient with its combined heat and power and gasification design, keeps $4 million annually circulating in the community that is now being sent to Wyoming, railroads, and a downstate coal-fired utility, will employ around 20 people to operate and 20 more in supplying fuel, and represents a $30 million high-tech investment in renewable energy generation.

Other communities also have weighed the options and chose new biomass generation. Just last week these projects received press attention:

Green Mountain College in Poultney this week opens a small wood biomass plant that will produce 20 percent of the electricity used by the Vermont school and 85 percent of its heat. The $5.8 million combined heat and power plant will is burn 4,400 tons of wood chips a year, replacing 200,000 gallons of heating oil..

“It’s a huge movement forward for a college that’s trying to educate about sustainability across the curriculum,” Bill Throop, the provost, told the Rutland Herald.

The project is the result of nearly five years of work by students and staff to respond to energy security, peak oil concerns, renewable energy, and the climate crisis. The intent was to replace the school’s oil-fueled boiler with a cleaner, renewable, and more efficient power plant. Similar plants operate at Bennington and Middlebury Colleges in Vermont. The Bennington plant is pictured above.

In New York, NRG Energy Inc. last week was awarded a 10-year contract from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) for power generated using renewable biomass fuel at its Dunkirk Generating Station in western New York. The project, which is expected to come online by the end of 2011, will produce up to 15 megawatts of the station’s output.

“Adding sustainable biomass to the fuel mix cuts emissions and supports the state’s goal of producing 30% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015,” said Drew Murphy, President of NRG’s Northeast Region, in a news release. “This project will also create up to 50 processing and transportation jobs in western New York and produce enough electricity to power 12,000 households.”

Last year, the New York Public Service Commission expanded the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 30 percent renewable electricity by 2015, up from the 25 percent level set in 2004. The change prompted NRG to propose using biomass as a primary fuel at its Montville Generating Station after repowering one of the facility’s existing units to produce up to 40 MW of electricity. In Louisiana, NRG has created a 20-acre test site using locally grown switchgrass and sorghum to be used as a biomass fuel at its Big Cajun II plant.

Speaking of Louisiana, Baton Rouge may soon be the site of a $124 million wood pellet-making plant, whose products will be sold overseas and used as fuel. William New, the Wisconsin-based chairman and chief executive officer of Point Bio Energy LLC of Baton Rouge, said the plant will employ between 85 and 100 people and generate 500 to 1,000 other related jobs as it taps the area’s timber industry for its raw materials and makes use of the port

“The capacity of the plant is 400,000 to 450,000 tons a year,” New told the Associated Press. “We have ongoing discussions with a number of people in Europe to take all or part of the production of the plant.”

According to Wood Resource Quarterly, the demand for wood pellets is around 8 million tons a year in northern Europe, and that number is expected to double or triple over the next decade. The global trade for woody biomass, particularly pellets, nearly doubled between 2003 and 2008, to around 3 million tons.

Production capacity in North America grew from 1 million tons in 2004 to more than 6 million tons in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia two companies — Nova Scotia Power and NewPage — announced plans last week to develop a new 60 MW biomass co-generation facility. The $200 million plant is under review by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, and if approved could be finished by late 2012.

The project, according to local news reports, is expected to create an estimated 150 new jobs in Northern Nova Scotia, primarily in the forestry sector, in addition to maintaining the Port Hawkesbury mill’s existing workforce of approximately 550 employees. Approximately 50 person-years of employment will also be created during the construction phase.

The Unfolding Clean Energy Economy

Imperium biofuels plant in Grays Harbor, Washington.

Last November Senator Hillary Clinton delivered a major policy speech in Iowa, during which she described her clean energy and jobs proposal. Three months later, in a speech in Seattle, Senator Barack Obama outlined his clean energy plan. Every week now, in many of their public appearances, both Democratic presidential candidates mention the millions of “green-collar jobs” they anticipate from an energy strategy that stresses clean renewable sources and moves the nation away from a carbon (read that oil and gas and coal) energy economy.

Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, who’s assured action on global climate change if he’s elected president, also gingerly notes the need for what he calls “alternative” sources of energy. His policy platform is decent. But he’s under enormous pressure from the Republican governors of carbon energy producing states to refrain from addressing either issue.

There’s good reason for such attention to clean energy and jobs in the campaign. Both concerns attach no partisanship. And evidence of the transition at the grassroots, among the tens of thousands of entrepreneurs in the clean and green energy sector, in city governments, in specific metropolitan regions is emerging. The clear outlines of the new green economy are becoming clearer by the week:

1. Three times as many miles of new light rail and commuter rail transit have built in the U.S. since 1992 than miles of new divided super highway.

2. Texas, with nearly 4,400 windmills, is the largest generator of electricity from wind in the U.S.

3. Pacific Gas and Electric has reached agreement with BrightSource to build three solar-powered electric generating stations in California’s Mojave Desert that could eventually produce 900 megawatts of power, or equivalent to the largest coal-burning power plants in the country. An agreement is in negotiation between BrightSource and the state trade unions to build and maintain the plant with high-paying union workers

4. Ford and General Motors have joined Honda, Toyota and other vehicle manufacturers in designing and building fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, and Google has vowed to promote the market for 100 mpg plug-in hybrids.

5. Since 2004, according to Governor Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania has attracted 3,500 new high-paying manufacturing jobs to its new clean energy industrial sector. Iowa counts 1,800 clean energy jobs.

6. The Imperium biofuels plant in Grays Harbor, Washington was constructed by some 300 union workers in 2006 at a cost of $60 million. It is the largest biofuels refinery (see pix) in the country and is focusing its business strategy on developing bio jet fuel.

7. The strongest housing markets in the nation are now in metropolitan neighborhoods, and downtowns with good rapid transit.San Francisco, for instance, is the only city in the Bay Area that experienced a rise in private home prices since last year. The distant suburbs, meanwhile, are experiencing the sharpest drop in home prices.

8. The number of homes sold in Richmond, Walnut Creek, Corte Madera, and other distant San Francisco suburbs have fallen 50 to 66 percent, and prices have tumbled 30 to 40 percent in a year. These trends are consistent with the experiences of other major metropolitan regions on both coasts, the South, and the Middle West.

The Dream Reborn, Onward to New Governing Coalition

Two weeks ago, at the Take Back America conference in Washington, Majora Carter took a moment to explain the motivation behind The Dream Reborn, a celebration this weekend in Memphis that honors the life and marks the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

“The work now is solutions-based,” said Carter, who founded and directs Sustainable South Bronx, a seven-year-old non-profit environmental and economic development organization in New York. “We’re applying our knowledge, our research, our advocacy to places to help people participate in this new economy.

“We are on the cusp of something so huge,” she added. “We’re activating the green economy to transfer wealth and the capacity to participate to include poor people. We’re reaching across the traditional lines. It’s a very big change and a very big opportunity for everybody.”

The Dream Reborn is not likely to attract the media — mainstream and new — that it deserves. But in the view of this environmental journalist and advocate, the conference is a happening for environmentalism, the social justice community, and the nation. The reason: it brings together the leaders and activists from the newly energized sectors of progressive America — greens, social justice, business, labor, government — around principles and values that have attained new cultural and economic salience in the United States.

Those, of course, are justice, and peace, and freedom, and equality. The legacy of Dr. King. Carter and her colleague, Van Jones, the head of Green For All, the conference sponsor, have found a new path to 21st century relevance for Dr. King’s vision in the clean energy economy, in environmentalism, in the emerging industrial sector tied to efficiency, pollution prevention, renewable energy, and halting global climate change. The Dream Reborn is the latest in a series of high-profile gatherings around the nation this year that are pointing to the development of a new governing coalition based not on exploitation of natural and human capital — the economic principle of the 20th century — but on conservation and collaboration and reason. These will be the generators of millions of new green-collar jobs.

Bill McKibben, in a new piece for The Nation, wrote: “There are people starting to think along these lines: the Green for All campaign has been pushing for a billion-dollar commitment for a quarter-million green jobs of just this kind, designed to pull people out of poverty.” He added: “Were King still alive he’d be fighting to take on the twin scourges of global warming and global inequity with a massive new public works campaign.”

Van Jones described the conference’s purpose this way in an interview: “I wanted to get people together, on the 40th anniversary of his death, around the idea of Dr. King’s dream. Many were not around during his life. He’s been gone longer than he lived. I wanted to introduce a new generation to Dr. King’s dream. His message was uplifting the people. The new message is uplifting the people and the planet, too.”

One of the leaders speaking this weekend to 1,000 people — the conference sold out this week — is my colleague Jerome Ringo, the president of the Apollo Alliance, who spent part of his career in a Louisiana petrochemical plant and has spent two decades making the case that environmentalism and social justice are tied together.

Other presenters are Winona LaDuke (Honor the Earth), Malia Lazu (The Gathering for Justice), LaDonna Redmond (Institute for Community Resource Development), Mary Ann Hitt (Appalachian Voices), Reverend Yearwood (Hip Hop Caucus), Adrienne Maree Brown (Ruckus Society), Tony Anderson (Morehouse College Student Leader), Ian Kim (Oakland Green Jobs Corps), and Rinku Sen (Applied Research Center).

Majora Carter and the Green Energy Economy

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WASHINGTON — Last week in Pittsburgh, Van Jones, the 39-year-old founder of Green For All and one of the people who introduced the idea of “green-collar jobs” to both Democratic presidential candidates, brought more than 600 veteran union and environmental organizers to an awed hush. His address on the potential of the green energy economy to produce millions of jobs and a pathway out of poverty for disadvantaged inner city residents was a tour de force in mixing statistical analysis of global climate change, projections of industrial revenue in the developing wind and solar industries, and social justice metaphor and emotion.

Today, during the Take Back America conference here, an even larger audience heard from Majora Carter (see pix), the executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, a seven-year-old green advocacy and economic development group that has produced a new riverside park, promoted and installed green roofs, developed a state of the art green-collar job training program, and generated new jobs and hope in a Congressional district that is the poorest in the nation. “We went from here,” said Carter, her arms spread to the two screens displaying pictures of garbage dumps, incinerators, and refuse-strewn lots in her neighborhood, “to here.” The PowerPoint switched to a shot of the inviting, green, Hunt’s Point Riverside Park along the Bronx River.

The two presentations struck me as seminal. Never in my experience in the environmental community, a personal history that stretches back to the first Earth Day in 1970, has there been two young leaders as incandescent as Carter and Jones. And never in the history of modern American environmentalism have the two most exciting and important leaders been African American. Environmentalism has gained something it never earned before: soul and street cred.

After her talk, which was received with a standing ovation, Carter told me, “The work now is solutions-based. We’re applying our knowledge, our research, our advocacy to places to help people participate in this new economy. We are on the cusp of something so huge.”

When I asked her what she meant, Carter said, “We’re activating the green economy to transfer wealth and the capacity to participate to include poor people. We’re reaching across the traditional lines. It’s a very big change and a very big opportunity for everybody.”

It helps in image-conscious America that Carter and Jones are uncommonly beautiful and stylish. It also helps that they can communicate in whatever realm they need to. Carter was raised in the South Bronx, and has said in interviews that she knows the streets, and that her childhood included instances of abuse. Yet she also was educated at Wesleyan, where she received her degree in 1988, and later earned a Masters at NYU in 1997. In 2005 the MacArthur Foundation awarded her one of its “genius” awards.

Jones was raised in Jackson, Tennessee, attended the University of Tennessee in Martin, and Yale Law School. He is well-known in the San Francisco Bay Area for challenging police practices. His environmental roots are firmly planted in the same soil as Carter’s. Both see the emerging green energy economy as a way to revive job prospects in low-income neighborhoods abandoned by most American employers. In retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient, in manufacturing solar energy systems, in installing green roofs and new parks lie solutions to joblessness, national security, and climate change. Theirs is not an environmentalism meant to point fingers. Instead it’s an environmentalism intended to wrap eager arms around capitalist opportunity.

Such a different message. Things change. So do leaders. These two have arrived at the perfect moment.

Van Jones; An Economy For Problem Solvers

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PITTSBURGH — On the day after he buried his father, Van Jones, arguably the most thoughtful and dynamic young leader in the American environmental movement, addressed the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference this morning. Jones, who bore his grief in occasional tears, told the more than 600 people in the room that this gathering was such a seminal event in the construction of a new green/labor/business governing coalition in the United States that his father wanted him to be here.

“He had some principles,” said Jones, who is head of a new California-based group named Green For All. “He stood up for the little people. He was born in abject poverty in Memphis. He joined the Air Force when he was 17-years-old in the middle of the Vietnam War so he could send a check to his mother. He had some principles. He came from the generation that had dogs sicked on them. He was in Memphis when Dr. King was killed and I was in utero. He had some principles. And the most fundamental of them was to stick up for the little people. Don’t leave anybody behind.

“My father got out of poverty,” Jones continued. “He could have bought a big house and could have left the community. He raised us right there.”

Jones stopped at this point. The room hushed. With a tissue, he dabbed at the tears on his cheeks. He bowed his head for a moment and then looked straight ahead. “We need to have principles,” he said. “What we need is to minimize the pain and maximize the gain for the little people, the ones too easy to leave behind.”

Aside from the riveting emotional content of the moment, there are a couple of big points worth noting about Jones’ appearance, and especially the steady evolution of a national political leader capable of tieing together the four essential social and economic movements — environmentalists, civil rights activitist, labor, and progressive businesses — that now have the opportunity to take back America. And it’s no accident that Jones, whose work until the couple of years was distinguished by defending citizens against the police in Oakland, has become a bona fide star.

The environmental movement, with all of its lily white warts and scientific hyping of minimal risks and upper crust chic, has nevertheless been the most important and durable movement on the left during the entire attack on America by what Jones calls “the pollution-based economy,” and “a government on the side of the problem makers.” By tying his work to the green movement, he broadened his base, linked to the considerable wealth on the green left, and found allies in the media and in Democratic politics. In 2007 he emerged in a column by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, shared a stage in New York with President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative, and worked with California Senator Barbara Boxer to hone the legislation, affixed to last year’s federal Energy Bill, that will train over 30,000 low income people in green collar jobs.

It also helps that Jones, who’s not yet 40, the grandson of a southern black minister, and a Yale Law School graduate, knows a little about cadence, metaphor, story-telling and theater. The man knows how to talk.

Today his message was this: “There is nothing standing between us and the green economy but our own cynicism, our lack of trust in each other, fear of success, and our being used to being small,” he said. “We have the obligation to be right and in the majority.”

Jones noted that during the Depression farmers, students, working people, and intellectuals built a permanent governing New Deal coalition that defeated Fascism, built prosperity, and created the middle class. He stressed the need to think about the opportunity that lies before the nation to build an economy that helps working people and the environment, that “lifts the nation and everybody in it.”

“This is not a problem we solve that is built on marginal fixes,” said Jones. “We have an economy based on hurting poor people and hurting the planet. We’re talking about an economy about helping poor people and helping the planet. In order to get that change out of the system we need a movement, we need a coalition that can last over time, that can govern for decades. The government is on the side of the problem makers in this economy. It’s time to build a government on the side of the problem solvers in this economy. It’s time to build an economy that leaves nobody behind.”