Responding to a Candidate on Traverse City Biomass Resistance

grassroots resistance to clean energy, biomass

This morning I received an email message from Tom Mair, a Green Party candidate for the Grand Traverse (Michigan) Board of Commissioners, who wanted to know what I thought about the decision in June by Traverse City Light and Power to abandon its proposal to build a wood biomass plant. I served as communications and engagement consultant on the public hearings the utility held this winter.

Tom’s message and my response follow:

good afternoon Keith,
Tom Mair from the Greens here…
where are you on biomass and TCLP now that the TLCP board seems to have shelved biomass?
I’m concerned about biomass in Michigan… is there any regulation of the number of plants (that’s power plants) and the capacity? Seems like there should be. Otherwise every town could build one. Before long there would be too many plants and fewer plants to cut down.
I’m running for GT County Bd of Commissioners Dist 7.

You raise good questions about oversight and management. The TCLP proposal included a sustainable forestry initiative to assure steady fuel supply. After all, what sense does it make to build a biomass plant that couldn’t secure fuel at an affordable rate, causing electric rates to rise? By the way, TCLP had a plentiful supply of fuel from cherry orchard tree wastes, which are routinely burned in giant bonfires with no emissions control or harvesting of heat value at all.

The easy politic here is the flat out lying, exaggeration, misinformation, and fear-mongering of opponents. It was eye-opening to me and reflected the stiff resistance at the grassroots to clean energy projects. I’ve written extensively about that on my ModeShift blog. Check out the bottom of this piece.

Clean energy development is dividing American environmentalism in interesting and potentially harmful ways. The inflexible ideological wing, expressed by TC biomass proponents, essentially wants to do nothing different. The risk of doing something to take care of baseload generating needs was rejected, and the utility’s 30 by 20 goal is likely dead for a good while. That’s a shame if you are convinced that anything we can do to reduce the effects of climate change are worthwhile.

I’ve worked and reported on the climate and energy sector for years and know there is no easy answer.

Some in the TCLP public meetings called for more natural gas generation, but the risks of doing that have been very high in the Antrim play — shredding the forests with 10,000 well pads and thousands of new miles of roads and pipelines. The risks of the new deep shale play are unknown in Michigan but similar formations in other states are raising havoc with water supplies. I also wonder whether Traverse City residents are any more willing to build a right-size natural gas-fired plant within city boundaries.

Some called for reversing a public decision two years ago and rebuilding the Boardman dams, which generate 2 mw. The cost is high and the environmental goal of restoring the river’s natural flow would be halted.

Some called for more efficiency, a good idea and well worth pursuing, as TCLP is doing with more success than most Michigan utilities. But saving energy doesn’t replace the need to also generate it. It also doesn’t obviate the need to replace coal-fired baseload generation.

Some called for more wind, which TCLP is executing. Wind has an important role but is intermittent and doesn’t replace the need for baseload energy.

So the utility pursued a path I call radical pragmatism. If your goal is to reduce reliance on coal, the dirtiest and most resource-wasting fuel there is, and you want to do so with a local source of renewable energy to replace baseload coal-fired electrical generation, then TCLP had a reasonable response. Build a right-size, 10 mw, clean-burning, state-of-the-art, wood-burning, gasification plant that generates heat and power and makes a lot of sense.

It generates half the C02 emissions of a coal-fired plant and burns much more cleanly than the wood-burning stoves that operate in the northwest Michigan homes of its critics. It produces no mercury to contaminate water and fish and no heavy metals, like a coal-burning utility. It will never account for anything like the 29 mining deaths that occurred earlier this year in an Appalachian coal mine. And it produces little if any of the health-threatening particulates that the sham “authorities” contended would sicken women and children. In fact all those light trucks, SUVs, diesel-powered, and gasoline-powered cars the critics drive each day actually produce and stir up health-threatening particulates, as do the western strip mines and coal-burning power plants that provide the region’s electricity.

Lastly, building that state-of-the-art biomass plant would permanently employ 20 or 30 people in good benefits-paying jobs and keep in the community the $4 million dollars that TCLP is sending each year downstate to generate power and to western strip mines and railroads to bring the fuel to Michigan.

As you can see I’m no politician. It’s just clear to me that when weighing the risks and benefits a right-sized modern biomass plant makes more sense than what’s almost certain to occur now. TCLP will be forced to sign contracts with coal-fired utilities to provide Traverse City electricity at reasonable cost. One of those contracts could be with a proposed new plant in Bay City that some of those very same biomass critics have been fighting, in order to block its construction.

What happened with the biomass plant reflects all kinds of social and economic trends that are colliding, including an oppressive fear of the future that has produced a crippling politics of stasis — on the right and on the left.

Best of luck in your campaign, Keith

— Keith Schneider

Climate-Denying US Chamber Has A Point When It Comes to Grassroots Resistance to Clean Energy


The US Chamber of Commerce and many of its state-based affiliates, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, are nests of ideological movement conservatives devoted to all manner of influential key words that have shaped how states and Washington view their duties to mother nature. The Chamber has promoted such concepts as “free-market environmentalism” — which means allowing market trends to strip the earth — and “sound science,” which is a euphemism for ignoring science-based fact whenever possible.

Last summer the Chamber came under fire for what Pete Altman of the Natural Resources Defense Council called “its obstructionist stance on clean energy and climate legislation.” A number of the Chamber’s highest profile members broke with the organization and Greenpeace in December called the Chamber a “global warming crime scene.”

But in my research on the grassroots opposition to big clean energy projects around the country I learned about the Chamber’s Project No Project Web site, which characteristically attacks what it calls “environmental extremists” and NIMBY’s, but also documents energy projects around the country that have faced resistance at the grassroots, among them dozens of clean and renewable energy projects.

“No one objects to a fair and timely process whereby projects are examined and the affected communities can be heard,” wrote Thomas J. Donahue, the Chamber’s president and chief executive, in an op-ed last year in the Washington Examiner that accompanied the launch of Project No Project. “But reasonableness and common sense must carry the day. The  simple truth is that it takes too long to build almost anything in our country today—even  clean, green, and renewable energy resources that create jobs, enhance our energy security, and improve our environment. It’s time for change.”

This week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar awarded federal approval to the Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts after nine years of review and public confrontation that included fierce opposition from the Kennedy family and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Local environmental groups also aligned with Indian tribes in fighting the project. And yesterday the leaders of those organizations said they would pursue their work in the courts.

Cape Wind exposed a fault line in the environmental community that threatens to become the most important schism in the history of the modern American environmental movement. The NRDC, Greenpeace, the Conservation Law Foundation, and a number of other prominent state, regional, and national environmental organizations supported the project.

The same green vs. green trend is emerging in other projects and across the clean energy and climate realm. On the one hand, major environmental organizations are pushing hard in Washington and in states to secure more funding for renewable energy projects, and for regulation and statutes that cut emissions of climate changing gases.

On the other hand local organizations are using every veto tool in the opposition playbook to kill clean energy projects. In a growing number of instances they’ve succeeded in producing long delays that threaten projects. In other cases, clean energy developers confronting public  resistance have walked away.

My friends and colleagues in the environmental community and the clean energy development community tell me that almost every clean energy project of any size and scale is running headlong into civic opposition that in most cases is led by local environmental groups. The only region that appears to be ready to accept big clean energy projects is the South, where a colleague says she hasn’t picked up any signs of resistance.

Outside Magazine just published a very good piece on grassroots opposition to clean energy projects that includes telling quotes from leaders of both sides. “Renewable-energy developers are running headlong into half a century of very successful environmentalist opposition to large energy projects,” said Randy Udall, an energy analyst in Colorado and a member of the greenest political family in America.

He also told the magazine, “The notion that if we just cover rooftops, we can leave the deserts alone, that we don’t need new wind farms, and don’t need to build new transmission lines—that doesn’t pass the mathematical sniff test.What I say to these people is: Buy a calculator. Run the numbers. We’re going to have to scale up renewable energy in a way we can hardly imagine.”

Developers are more than aware of civic resistance to their projects and its source. “Local opposition to proposed wind farms arises because some people perceive that the development will change what they are used to,” write executives of the Wind Capital Group, a developer of Midwest wind farms that is based in St. Louis. “It is true that a large wind farm can be a significant change, but while some people express concern about the effect wind turbines have on the beauty of our landscape, others see them as elegant and beautiful, or as symbols of a better, less polluted future. The visual effect of wind farms is a subjective issue, but most of the criticisms made about wind energy today are exaggerated or untrue and simply reflect attempts by particular groups to discredit the technology, worry local communities and turn them against proposed projects. In the electronic age, myths and misinformation about wind power spread at lightning speed.”

— Keith Schneider

Let Wind Energy Blow? Not In These Places


Next month Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is scheduled to rule on a proposal to build one of the most contentious clean energy projects in the country. It is a 420-megawatt offshore wind farm in Massachusetts called Cape Wind. Audra Parker, the young leader of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, has emerged as a local public interest celebrity as a result of her work to prevent developers from constructing 130 turbines five miles out in Nantucket Sound.

The long battle over Cape Wind, the granddaddy of citizen opposition campaigns to clean energy development, is a reflection of many other such battles across the country, and emblematic of the schism in the environmental community over clean energy development and climate action. This post documents grassroots activism opposing wind energy projects in 12 more states.

Many of my environmental friends are not that concerned, arguing that grassroots opposition represents the give-and-take, checks and balances that have always existed in the green community. My reporting indicates that it could be much more significant than that, and may invite criticism from environmentalism’s opponents.

On the one hand, said a letter this week in my hometown weekly, the Benzie Record-Patriot, environmental organizations have pushed hard for clean energy investment and action to solve global warming. On the other groups big and small assert this or that project is unfit for construction. I’m documenting that opposition in this and a number of other posts.

With wind the arguments generally focus around noise, viewsheds, light flicker, location, and a few more issues. But victory for wind opponents is no victory because the default position now and for the time being is almost always generating power with more fossil fuel, mostly coal. In the risk-benefit analysis how is that coal is seen as less risky than wind?

Nevertheless grassroots activists fighting clean energy are gaining fame and plenty of support. On Nantucket, Audra Parker counts the Kennedy family as allies, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior environmental attorneys, though the NRDC says the windfarm should be built. The state historic preservation officer also opposes the project because of its location in an area viewed as historically significant, as well as sacred to a number of native American tribes.

Greenpeace supports the project, which was initially proposed almost a decade ago, along with the World Wildlife Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Dr. George Woodwell, the renowned ecologist and the founder of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

Many of the details of the opposition to the Nantucket Sound development — viewsheds, NIMBYism, scale of the machines, proximity to sacred ground — are consistent with another fight over wind energy nearby on Cape Cod. Wellfleet officials want to place one windmill on town land close to Cape Cod National Seashore, but neighbors are organizing to stop the project.

A year ago, authorities in New York and in Ontario identified Lake Ontario and Lake Erie as likely sources of offshore wind power. In mid-April 2009 the New York Power Authority unveiled big offshore projects for both lakes. Some of the windfarms would consist of 500 turbines towering 45o feet above the lake. Shoreline owners in  Jefferson, Oswego, Cayuga and Wayne counties in New York went to work to halt the idea, which they accomplished earlier this year.

The issues included scale, sediments, transmission lines, water quality, boating safety, fisheries, subsidies, efficiency, and aesthetics, loss of tax base. “The projects are bad community planning, especially in the water. People choose to live in and visit waterfront communities for the view and relaxation. These projects destroy the view, create noise and other pollution and devalue property,” wrote Robert E. Aliasso Jr. and Tom Bishop, co-chairs of the Coalition for the Preservation of the Golden Crescent and 1000 Islands Region.

In Minnesota a proposal to build 52 turbines producing 78 megawatts of power over 32,000 acres in five townships near Red Wing, south of Minneapolis, is running into local opposition. Steve Groth, a rural landowner, has asked Goodhue County to amend the county’s zoning ordinance to establish a yearlong moratorium on wind development to study potential health and safety concerns. He also wants the PAC to increase setbacks between turbines and non-participating dwellings from the state-mandated 750 feet to 3,168 feet. He also wants to increase setbacks between turbines and homes from the state-mandated 750 feet to more than half a mile. The proposal has generated resistance from wind developers, who view Goodhue as a likely site for wind development.

In Michigan, wind development has prompted grassroots opposition in the Thumb region, near the Lake Huron coast, where landowners are objecting to noise and vibration. And on the other side of the state, where Lake Michigan lies, a proposal to build a large offshore wind farm near Luddington has prompted howls of protest from shoreline land owners. The French company that proposed the project has scaled back the number of windmills it wants to build. The state established a blue ribbon committee to develop siting guidelines and regulations.

In Vermont,  a wind project proposed for Herrick Mountain in Ira generated opposition from residents and an ecologist with the Fish and Wildlife Department who said in a letter to the developer that it would damage the Green Mountain ecosystem. The project, proposed by Vermont Community Wind Farm, has been repeatedly attacked, principally for the potential effect it could have of the  ridgeline, along with visual and noise issues.

Citizen opposition in Vermont also has  erupted in other communities, including over a 16-turbine project by First Wind Corp. in Sheffield. But Vermont residents also are supporting some big wind projects, among them a project by Green Mountain Power Corp. and Vermont Electric Co-Op to build up to two dozen 400-foot tall wind turbines along a three-mile stretch of Lowell Mountain ridgeline near Lowell. The windmills, built mostly on private land, would generate up to 63 megawatts of power – enough to power about 20,000 homes. Earlier this month the Kingdom Community Wind project was approved by residents 342-114.

Maine Governor John Baldacci has stirred a hornet’s nest of grassroots opposition with his campaign to speed wind farm developments on and offshore. Citizens in Penobscot County filed suit against a $130 million 40-turbine windfarm to be built on a ridgeline, and earlier this month lost the case in the Maine Supreme Court.

Maine’s Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power is pushing the governor and the state to issue a moratorium on industrial wind power projects until adequate noise regulations are implemented. Baldacci is resisting the effort, and he is supported by a number of the state’s editorial boards.

In Rhode Island, opposition is mounting to an offshore wind farm near Block Island. Eight wind turbines are proposed in the ocean three miles southeast of Block Island. They will rise 450 feet above the water from steel frames anchored to the ocean floor. And residents of New Shoreham aren’t thrilled.

In Oregon, a Texas company has stirred opposition to its proposal to build a wind project across 47,000 acres on the slopes of Craig Mountain that overlook two sides of Union. The Antelope Wind Power Project calls for 182 turbine. Union opposition focuses on spoiled views, and damage to wildlife habitat. The City Council declared its opposition to the project in December, and a hastily formed group papered the town with “Say NO” posters.

In Illinois, residents of Dekalb County have battled wind farm proposals for 7 years, arguing that they cause illness, nuisance, noise, and other problems.

In Pennsylvania, a wind farm proposal has sparked a fight in Butler Township.

In Wisconsin, Invenergy seeks state approval to build 100 turbines in four communities in what would be Brown County’s first major commercial wind farm. The Ledge Wind Energy Park would have the capacity to generate enough electricity for 40,000 homes. Critics are trying to stop the project and among its many arguments — most of which are consistent with other battles over wind farms — is a new one. They argue the turbines would interfere with nearby telecommunications towers, a point disputed by the county’s emergency safety officials.

In Wyoming, resistance to wind farms appears to come primarily from the fossil fuel industry, which doesn’t want the competition.

Three years ago billboards along I-70 in Kansas protested against the “industrialization” of rural parts of the state as large-scale wind farm development advanced. “Such opposition to wind farm development–and related transmission–threatens to slow growth in parts of the country where populations are small, viewsheds are wide and wind resources are robust,” wrote David Wagman, chief editor of Renewable Energy World Magazine, in February.

How significant is this push back on renewable energy development? Here’s what Gabriel Alonso, CEO, Horizon Wind Energy said recently: “We have 19,000 megawatts of wind energy under development throughout 22 states. We have run, in some specific cases, into opposition. But you need to differentiate between three people making a lot of noise or re opposition within the community. Normally when we peel back the onion, we always find out that we are talking about three people who have economic, real-estate or some sort of interests, and we are conflicting with those interests. So I do not consider ‘not in my backyard’ being a real fundamental issue for us to site projects.”

Is Alonso right? Instinct says he should know. But in so many states the fights over wind are fierce and driven in too many cases by personal sensibility and not keen grappling with the alternative, which is almost always more coal. It’s not like battling a Wal-Mart and winning a wetland and a downtown business association capable of keeping its members prosperous. It’s not like killing a highway and getting a beautiful river valley. Killing a wind farm generally means getting the same-old, which is coal.

— Keith Schneider