Michigan’s Building Boom in Electric Vehicle Battery Manufacturing

HOLLAND, Mich. — In February 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which among other things provided $2.4 billion to encourage development of a domestic industry to make lighter, more energy-dense lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles.

Two weeks ago, on July 15, the president flew to this small city on the shore of Lake Michigan to attend the groundbreaking for a $303 million, 650,000 square-foot battery plant operated by Compact Power, a subsidiary of LG Chem, a Korean company, and to see other evidence of the stimulus bill’s influence in Michigan. He did not have to travel far.

There are 17 new plants in production, under construction or approaching groundbreaking in Michigan’s nascent vehicle battery sector, according to the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. Two of them, representing an investment of $523 million, are in Holland, a city of 34,000.

Read more from my piece in The New York Times today here.

The auto-related re-industrialization of Michigan, much of it founded on clean car technology, represents one of the important hopeful signs of a potential recovery for the state. Moreover, the economics of this nascent transition is based on environmental principles. Vehicles are designed to be more efficient, cleaner, electric, and a bit more right-sized for the era. Michigan’s got lots of trouble but this one corner of the economy shows promise.

For those more interested in the trend, I’ve reported and published quite a number of other pieces on the green industrial trend here in Michigan.

March 31, 2008
Coal’s Soaring Costs, Wind Power’s Friendly Breeze

January 15, 2009
Obama’s Plan: Clean Energy Will Help Drive A Recovery

March 16, 2009
Michigan Unlikely Home For Solar Powerhouse

May 29, 2009
Michigan’s Sun, Wind Sprout New Clean Energy Jobs Sector

July 16, 2009
It’s Economy in Shambles, Midwest Goes Green

May 27, 2010
Michigan: Where U.S. Clean Energy, Emissions, Efficiency Policy Really Count

August 3, 2010
In Michigan, A Bet on Clean Energy Begins to Take Shape

— Keith Schneider

Earth, Wind, Fire On Day of Onrushing Risks

The accelerating consequences of the warming Earth, the hazards associated with increasing reliance on fossil fuels, the promise of big clean energy projects, and the difficulties in advancing a national climate and energy policy fit for the 21st century came into sharp focus today in Washington and across the nation.

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In Boston, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that aftter nine years of public confrontation, the United States had reached a decision to approve crucial permits to build 130 utility-scale windmills off the coast of Nantucket in Massachusetts. The Interior secretary’s decision, according to U.S. regulators, may help speed construction of the first offshore wind farm in the United States. But that is not at all assured as an alliance of local environmental organizations and Indian tribes who see the windfarm as an intrusion vow to press their opposition in the courts.

Salazar’s announcement was made within minutes of a statement by the U.S. Coast Guard, which was preparing to ignite a portion of the huge oil slick from last week’s explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to test whether burning some of the crude might prevent oil from reaching the Louisiana Coast.

In Washington, a new EPA assessment of how climate change is affecting precipitation, growing seasons, bird migrations, and 21 other indicators served as a kind of insistent background music to the raw and clamorous political combat that has blocked a trio of Senators from New England and South Carolina from introducing of a bipartisan climate and energy bill they have worked on for months.

There is still no clear indication that the disruption that caused the delay this week – a bid by the Democratic Senate majority leader to consider immigration reform before the climate and energy bill — will be resolved. But news organizations are reporting that the draft bill has been sent to the EPA for analysis, a crucial step required for full Senate floor debate.

Bound Up In The Ropes of Economic, Political Circumstance
Though today’s events occurred separately, they nevertheless formed the political, environmental, and scientific boundary lines of an era of economic transition that is leadng the U.S. to a place it has rarely been before – uncertain, wavering, and for every potentially small step forward, three steps are in retreat in the face of onrushing risks. Those include what the EPA on Tuesday called “indisputable evidence” that human activities are producing sweeping alterations to the planet’s environment.

The federal approval of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, and the test burn in Louisiana served as the big climate and energy news of the day. Arguably, though, the more durable and significant advance of the week was the EPA’s new assessment, “Climate Change Indicators in the United States,” which was released on Tuesday.

“Over the last several decades, evidence of human influences on climate change has become increasingly clear and compelling,” said the report’s authors, which included five U.S. departments and agencies, six American research universities, three non-profit organizations, and contributions from government researchers in Japan, Australia, and Bermuda. “There is indisputable evidence that human activities such as electricity production and transportation are adding to the concentrations of greenhouse gases that are already naturally present in the atmosphere. These heat-trapping gases are now at record-high levels in the atmosphere compared with the recent and distant past.”

Indicators – Not Good
The EPA study, which was made public a week after the State Department released a 193-draft report that argued climate change posed a grave threat to the global economy, describes the accelerating consequences in the United States and globally of a warming planet. Those include rising sea levels, melting glaciers, lengthening growing seasons, intensifying lethal storms, steadily raising temperatures, aggravating heat-related illnesss, draining snowpacks of moisture, and wildlife pushed outside their traditional ranges.

Though many of the details are not new, the compendium of scientific evidence, rigorously gathered and compellingly presented, strengthen the narrative of swift change in the natural world that opponents of climate science have tried for years to dismiss. “These indicators show us that climate change is a very real problem with impacts that are already being seen,” said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

A Sampling of Consequences The 24 climate change indicators and a sampling of the agency’s findings are:

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: From 1990 to 2008, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities increased 14 percent to nearly 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities rose 26 percent from 1990 to 2005, to 38 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. CO2, which accounts for three-quarters of all global greenhouse gas emissions, increased 31 percent.

Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases: Levels of CO2 are higher now than they have been in thousands of years, “even after accounting for natural fluctuations.” Concentrations have risen from 270 ppm to almost 390 ppm.

Climate Forcing: From 1990 to 2008, scientists calculated a 26 percent increase in the absorption of energy in tge atmosphere, or “radiative forcing.”

U.S. and Global Temperature: Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental U.S. have occurred since 1990, and the last 10 five-year periods have the warmest five-year periods on record. The first decade of the 21st century was the warmest on record worldwide. Average temperatures in the lower 48 states have risen an average 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1901, and the rate of increase has accelerated over the last 30 years.

Heat Waves: The frequency of heat waves and the percentage of the United States experiencing heat waves has increased since the 1970s. The Dust Bowl decade of the 1930s remains the record-holder for heat waves.

Drought: During the first decade of the 21st century 30 to 60 percent of the U.S. experienced drought, but the indicator is too new to determine whether droughts are increasing or decreasing.

U.S. and Global Precipitation: Average rain and snowfall has increased in the U.S. and globally. In the continental U.S. precipitation has increased at a rate of 6.4 percent per century since 1901, Globally, precipitation has increased 2 percent per century. Conditions vary within regions. Parts of the Southwest, and Hawaii have seen a decrease in precipitation.

Heavy Precipitation: Intense “single-day events” or very heavy rainfall is increasing. Eight of the 10 worst years for extreme rainfall in the United States have occurred since 1990.

Tropical Cycle Intensity: The intensity of tropical storms in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is increasing. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.

Ocean Heat: Since the 1950s the level of heat stored in the world’s oceans has risen. EPA notes that the data interpretations vary as scientists are working with different measuring techniques.

Sea Surface Temperature: Temperatures rose an average of 0.12 degrees per decade from 1901 through 2009, with the fastest rise over the past 30 years.

Sea Level: Oceans have risen an average of six-tenths of an inch per decade since the 1870s.

Ocean Acidity: Ocean acidity has increased.

Arctic Sea Ice: The Arctic is melting. The expanse of Arctic ice in 2009 was 24 percent less than the area covered on average from 1979 to 2000.

Glaciers: Glaciers globally are receding at a quickening pace and have lost more than 2,000 cubic miles of water since 1960, contributing to the rise in sea level.

Lake Ice: Lakes in the northern U.S. are staying ice-free about one to two days longer each decade since the late 1800s.

Snow Cover: North American snow cover has decreased steadily, from 3.4 million square miles in the 1970s to 3.18 million in the first decade of this century.

Snowpack: The depth of snow in early spring has, on average, decreased in the western U.S., with some areas seeing a decline of more than 75 percent between 1950 and 2000.

Heat-Related Deaths: Heat-related illnesses caused over 6,000 deaths in the U.S. since 1980. But the data classifying deaths as heat-related is new, and the EPA acknowledges there is considerable year-to-year variability and it is difficult to discern long-term trends.

Length of Growing Season: Earlier spring warming and later fall frosts have increased the average length of the growing season in the lower 48 states by about two weeks since the start of the 20th century. The trend is most apparent in the West.

Plant Hardiness Zones: Higher winter temperatures since 1990 in most parts of the country have shifted northward the region where species of plants are able to thrive.

Leaf and Bloom Dates: Leaves are emerging, and lilacs and honeysuckle are blooming slightly earlier than a century ago. EPA notes that it’s difficult to determine if the observations are statistically meaningful.

Bird Wintering Ranges: Studies have found birds in North America have shifted their wintering grounds an average of 35 miles northward over the past half century, and a few species are moving hundreds of miles farther north and further inland.

“I have seen most of these data before, but it’s extremely useful to have it all in one place and presented in a visually appealing—and appalling—fashion,” wrote Dan Lashof, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center in Washington. “Over the last two decades scientists have patiently assembled the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle into a crystal clear picture of how our planet is changing. Professional climate science deniers will continue to focus on the handful of pieces that have been misplaced or lost under the sofa. But for everyone else there is no denying that this picture spells trouble.”

— Keith Schneider

Biomass Gets Traverse City Go Ahead

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Just in time for Earth Day’s 40th celebration, the Traverse City Light and Power board voted last night to proceed with more due diligence — analysis, fuel studies, engineering designs, zoning decisions, many other data points — to acquire 10 mw of renewable energy with a state-of-the-art clean renewable wood biomass plant. Congratulations to the staff and board for making a tough and courageous decision. And thank you to Skip Pruss, director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth, and to Governor Jennifer Granholm, who today was recognized for the Leadership in Renewable Energy Award by the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association. Both Pruss and the governor provided vigorous support for the TCL&P proposal to build a small wood biomass plant.

Disappointing in all of the work that went into last night’s vote was the fact-thin, emotional, sanctimonious activism of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which allowed and enabled extremists to hijack their organization. Not once did NMEAC offer a credible alternative for generating baseload power in an era of fossil fuel dependency that has produced documentable and visible damage to Michigan. Instead NMEAC embraced wild assertions about the risks to the region’s forests, the supposed threat from ash, the plant’s emissions, even providing a forum for irresponsible fear-mongering. At one of its forums in February a NMEAC-sponsored extremist stated as bald fact an outright fear-provoking falsehood —  that an old and much larger wood biomass plant in Cadillac burned tires for fuel.

It doesn’t and never did. How do I know? As a senior staff member of the Michigan Land Use Institute I helped a local environmental organization develop and execute the public interest strategy that denied the plant from obtaining a state permit for burning tires as fuel. NMEAC never corrected that whopper or any of the others it fostered.

TCL&P showed steady resolve and exceptional resilience in hearing from citizens, responding to their concerns at a time when the plain fact is that nothing they would say would satisfy the polemical, polarized conversation that NMEAC encouraged and that Traverse City’s weekly and daily newspaper inflamed. Once again, though, facts led to a reasoned decision and Traverse City’s reputation as a center of green progress was enhanced.

— Keith Schneider

When Tea Party and Environmentalism Meet

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Quick. Who said this? A leader of the Tea Party or an extremist environmentalist?

“You make a tragic mistake characterizing the new grassroots environmental movement blossoming in the resistance to the horrific idea of burning the life on planet earth whether it be trees, whales or crops for fuel  as “blowback.” Unless you mean blowback to the corporate funded environmental movement and their paid lobbyists, marketers, and “experts.” The public clearly understands the physics of burning and energy and knows that burning trees as green energy is folly and that little boutique biomass burners to allow small groups of elites to maintain the illusion they have “renewable” energy–while some players collect thousands even millions behind the scenes–is essentially a sin.

“The experts YOU trot out clearly provide data that says that burning our forests could never even replace a single fossil fuel plant in Michigan.  And that biodiversity and CO2 sequestration would be severely damaged.  They just hide these truths to collect their paychecks from the timber, biomass, and biofuels lobby. That is an intellectual crime.  The corporate funded environmental movement that pushes phony solutions to global warming like biomass and biofuels is dying.  Our bought and paid for environmental movement and their paid representatives and the politicians they have duped (for not much longer) will change or come crashing down.

“You can either get with this new grassroots environmental movement, or stand by the corporate and business interests hanging on to the biomass bone like a pit bull whose has a grip on someones face. From BP to Rio Tinto the SAME corporations who fund the rape of the planet are funding this phony “renewable” energy movement.  So when we fight the proponents of those who pretend tree burning is sustainable or green or doesn’t pollute or emit CO2, we are fighting the very same companies and profiteers that have been raping our planet for sometime now–and the politicians they have tricked or cajoled or funded into supporting them. The only question is how much damage will the corporate environmental movement do before getting out of the way of the truth and preventing CITIZENS from making a real plan to save ourselves from the horrible ways we have treated our planet, free of salesmen, lobbyists, and marketers and the undo influence of the pillagers who are funding what passes for an environmental movement these days.”

I learned years ago, while reporting for the Times on the relative risks of trace levels of dioxin and other toxic substances, that data and science fact can prompt excess in the language and behavior of people who have embraced another view, regardless of its pragmatism and reason. At that time the language of grassroots and community environmentalists looked very similar to the heated hate rhetoric of the Posse Comitatus, a racist anti-government right wing group operating in the Great Plains.

The same trend is emerging in Traverse City, where Traverse City Light & Power proposes a renewable energy plan to acquire 30 percent of its power from local renewable resources by 2020. Part of the proposal  — along with purchasing more wind, solar, landfill gas, and dramatically increasing energy efficiency — is to build a state-of-the-art clean renewable 10 mw wood biomass plant. The latter has caused concern among people who believe that burning wood is not a good idea and will harm the forest. Most of the statements, while based largely on emotion, are expressed largely in civil tones.

But the leader of the opposition, a filmmaker in Traverse City named Jeff Gibbs, is making a movie about opposition to wood biomass and has been busy stirring the pot with hyper-heated, bombastic, ego-inflating, Rush Limbaugh like hectoring. The statement above, vintage Gibbs, was made on a public email thread earlier this month.

Full disclosure: I have been helping TCL&P design and execute a public information and engagement program for its 30By20 plan.

Here’s another example, more raw, nastier, from another biomass critic named Sally Neal, who was writing to Steve Smiley, a friend and a clean energy expert who helped TCL&P build the first industrial-scale utility wind turbine in the Midwest in 1996. (see pix above) “Are you now or were you not a paid employee of TCLP?”, writes Neal, “like keith schneider who is paid to SELL TCLP’s biomass to the ignorant masses?………unlike you, schneider is an eco-poseur, and an insult to the community…….i know his whole story, and have had a real closeup look at who he is and how he works, and its not pretty…..in fact, very ugly indeed……….some have characterized him as a whore…will work either side of the street….doesn’t care, as long as he gets paid and told what to say.”

As founder and executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute I learned that one measure of success in public policy disputes is how badly the other side misbehaves. By that measure, TCL&P’s pursuit of the 30By20 renewable plan and its proposed biomass project is on the right track.

— Keith Schneider

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.