Opposition to Biomass Impedes Clean Energy Development

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Mode Shift has reported the clean energy transition is being impeded by civic opposition to wind projects, solar projects, new transmission lines, and geothermal projects.  This post is the latest in the series and focuses on wood biomass. The Portland Oregonian, in an article in March, counted 18 states where wood biomass energy proposals are encountering stiff civic resistance.

One of those states is Michigan, where a plan by Traverse City Light & Power to acquire 30 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2020 has encountered resistance from a local environmental group, the region’s principal daily newspaper, and a widely-read weekly newspaper. Full disclosure, as I noted in an earlier post, I have been working several hours a week as a public engagement and communications specialist to help the utility with its 30BY20 renewable energy plan.

The big civic pushback comes principally from the utility’s proposal to replace some of its baseload energy, currently generated from coal, with a 10-megawatt wood biomass gasification plant that has combined heat and power capacity. The utility’s technical reports and specialists make a strong case that the proposed combined heat and power plant would generate far less emissions than a coal-fired plant, and comparable to a natural gas plant. It also would keep $4 million in the region that is now being sent to Wyoming, to railroads, and to downstate coal-generating utilities. And the wood-powered plant would be a step toward energy security and to reduce the need for coal.

Last week the state’s Director of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss, visited Traverse City and expressed support for the new plant, and the Michigan Land Use Institute (which I founded and where I worked for 12 years until 2007) proposed an alternative clean energy plan that included room for a small wood biomass plant, like that proposed by the utility. But the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which this month celebrates its 30th anniversary, has led the charge against the biomass idea, asserting without a strong fact base  that the plant will produce excess pollution (it won’t), toxic ash (it isn’t), and harm to the forests (not true).

What’s so disconcerting is that the effort to dissuade the utility’s board from approving the biomass proposal produces a net negative consequence for the environment. It means burning coal to produce power in northern Michigan. It means more greenhouse gases, more mercury in the state’s lakes and its fish, more heavy metals, more coal ash piles that leak, more strip mined coal. In a perfect world we’d be able to generate all our power with wind or sun or some other emissions-free resource. Nuclear?

It’s not a perfect world and wood biomass is not a perfect source of energy for generating baseload power. It’s just so much better than coal.

Those arguments don’t produce anything but derision among the ardent opponents of biomass who are trying to halt projects all over the country, including in these states:

In Massachusetts,  five wood biomass plants are proposed, and critics are going after them with vigorRussell Biomass proposes a 50 MW plant along the Westfield River in the south-central part of the state, and Pioneer Renewable Energy is proposing a 47 MW plant just east of Greenfield, Mass., near the Vermont border. Concerned Citizens of Russell have raised siting, pollution, and water withdrawals from the Westfield River as primary reasons to oppose the plant. Last year 450 people packed a zoning board hearing in Greenfield, where citizens described their fears about pollution, trucking, and forest sustainability.

Massachusetts is one of the 29 states that has approved a renewable portfolio standard to encourage utilities to develop a portion of their energy from cleaner sources. Massachusetts requires utilities to develop 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The Massachusetts Forest Bioenergy Initiative, a project of the state Department of Energy Resources, has found that wood biomass is a reasonable source of renewable energy in a state has “3 million acres of underutilized forestland and other large sources of wood.” The Bioenergy Initiative also found “that as much as 4 million tons of woody biomass could be produced annually in Massachusetts, mostly from forests and forest products industries. Utilizing only half that volume for the production of electricity would represent an estimated 150 MW of renewable generation, and substantial rural economic development associated with the fuel supply.”

Enough citizens in western Massachusetts — site of thick forests and the biomass proposals — expressed  such aggressive skepticism about the new plants that late last year that the state commissioned a study from the respected Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences to “appropriately direct and regulate the development of biomass energy for Massachusetts.”

Until the study is completed in May, and then opened for public comment and review, Massachusetts has put a moratorium on new wood biomass plant development. In addition, critics of the technology are pushing to 1) enact a new law that would limit air emissions to levels so low that wood biomass would cease to be an option, or 2) put a wood biomass ban in place through a November ballot initiative.

“The myth is cracking wide open right now as citizens and public health advocates and well-informed environmental organizations are becoming educated about the simple truth of biomass,” said Margot Sheehan, a lawyer with EcoLaw, an environmental organization that has become influential on the issue in Massachusett and other states. “These are incinerators in disguise.”

Scores of environmentalists, scientists, and energy specialists dispute that view, asserting that wood biomass can generate lower emissions and produce clean energy sustainably at less cost than coal and natural gas. “The benefits and impacts of all our energy sources deserve serious examination, and biomass is no exception,” said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “When managed sustainably, biomass can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and cut global warming pollution as it protects water and soil quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity.”

My friend Bill McKibben, the author and founder of 350.org, told me the other day in an email message that the big issue with wood biomass is scale. Perhaps the big biomass plants proposed in Massachusetts warrant the big citizen pushback. But the small 10 mw plant that McKibben supported and which is operating at Middlebury College, where he is a scholar in residence, makes more sense because its emissions are low and the college is working on a sustainble fuel supply plan, involving planting willows on marginal farm land. “I think biomass is the classic example of scale issues,” McKibben wrote. “The Middlebury plant is a good one.”

The value of the Middlebury plant, and the others built in recent years, is that wood biomass replaces coal, what McKibben calls “the dirtiest fuel on Earth.” The reality of all of the civic campaigns against wood biomass is that in every case a “win” for opponents of biomass is a big loss for everybody else. Why? Because generating electricity from coal produces demonstrably higher risks to the environment and public health.

Massachusetts is confronting the unfortunate reality that, no matter how hard we try, distributed renewable energy inevitably has some significant impact on our own backyards,” writes Chet Geschickter, a principal at Biomass Advisors, a consultancy. “It is easy to speak in platitudes about green jobs, innovation and green technology as a virtuous path forward to combat global warming head-on.  It is much harder for a state like Massachusetts to ponder, let alone undertake, any initiative to move from a near complete (as in 99 percent) importer of energy in all forms, to an energy producer, let alone an exporter of so much as a drop of fuel or volt of electricity.”

Wisconsin, like the other states considering wood biomass as an option, approved a renewable portfolio standard, which in Wisconsin’s case requires utility’s to generate 10 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2015. We Energies, in a bid to meet that requirement, has proposed a $255 million, 50-mw wood biomass-fired power plant to be built near Rothschild. But late in March, after the proposal was formally submitted to the state, 150 citizens turned out in Rothschild in late March to express fears about truck traffic, particulates, emissions, and forest sustainability.

Wisconsin is pressing forward. The state Public Service Commission in November approved Excel Energy`s application to install biomass gasification technology at its Bay FrontPower Plant in Ashland, Wis. The $58.1 million project converts the plant`s remaining coal-fired unit to biomass gasification technology, allowing it to use 100 percent biomass in all three boilers and making it the largest biomass plant in the Midwest. Currently, two of the three operating units at Bay Front use biomass as their primary fuel to generate electricity. Purchases of wood residues and related services will generate $20 million annually in economic development in the six-county region around Ashland, where the plant is located, said Excel.

In Georgia, residents in North DeKalb are protesting a proposal by Southeast Renewable Energy to build a $23 million wood biomass gasification plant in a light industrial area near n I-85. The community council and county planning commission, mindful of the opposition, have turned down a rezoning application for the site. Nimby issues are the principal cause of the citizen response.

Meanwhile in South Carolina, Energy Secretary Steven Chu attended a groundbreaking ceremony last November at DOE’s Savannah River Site, near Aiken, where a $795 million biomass plant is under construction to replace a coal-fired plant.

In Oregon, Seneca Sustainable Energy plans to open a power plant by year’s end that will convert about 700 tons a day of logging leftovers and waste from its nearby sawmill into enough electricity to power 13,000 homes. The plant, according to an article in the Portland Oregonian, “features West Coast-leading pollution controls endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s projected to release far less pollution than the usual practice of burning slash piles in the woods.” Oregon’s governor, and U.S. Senator favor the plant. But opposition includes Lisa Arkin, executive director of the Oregon Toxics Alliance in Eugene, who unsuccessfully pushed for tighter pollution controls.

She and other activists, reported the Oregonian, favor more energy conservation, subsidies for non-polluting renewable power and selective logging that can reduce logging waste and the need for open burning.

In Florida, a $250 million 50-mw wood biomass plant proposed by ADAGE for Gretna was blocked this year by citizen concerns

— Keith Schneider

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