When Tea Party and Environmentalism Meet

michigan-windmill

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

“Precedent Setting Achievement”

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The director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth last week lauded Traverse City Light & Power for pursuing a renewable energy strategy that fits northwest Michigan’s reputation as a green region, and “complements all the assets and progressive trends this region represents”. Stanley “Skip” Pruss, who is one of Governor Jennifer Granholm’s closest advisors and a nationally known clean energy leader, also supported the utility’s proposal to generate a portion of its renewable energy from a state-of-the-art combined heat and power wood biomass plant, calling it “a tremendous asset.”

“If this community were to do that,” Pruss said, “if TCL&P were to do that, it would be a precedent-setting achievement that we would commend other utilities to emulate. That is real leadership.” (See a full transcript of his remarks here.)

April 7 Meeting Concludes Public Process
Pruss visit came less than a week before the last of the three public forums that TCL&P has held to invite public comment on its plan to acquire 30 percent of its energy from local renewable resources by 2020. Pruss cited the utility’s public communications and engagement process, during which TCL&P has asked its customers and citizens to help choose the appropriate renewable resource, “as absolutely commendable.” Full disclosure: I’ve spent several hours a week since January as a communications and engagement strategist to help TCL&P draw up and execute the public process.

When asked directly by a board member and a citizen whether TCL&P should heed calls from some members of the community to slow the process and delay a decision on building a state-of-the-art biomass plant, Pruss was direct: “There are choices to be made. I would be disinclined to wait a year or two before you act. I think you should be aggressive.” (See attached transcript)

Pruss is leading Michigan’s new economic strategy, which relies on developing renewable energy resources, clean vehicles, and the tools and practices to move from fossil fuels to clean energy. He said over the next 15 months or so Michigan will see nearly $14 billion in clean energy investment, most of it for new plants downstate to manufacture lithium ion battery technology to power vehicles and store energy.

Benefits and Burdens
Pruss was effusive in outlining his support for the utility’s 30BY20 plan, which he said was at the leading edge of the state’s transition. He also described what he called the “benefits and burdens” of pursuing wind, solar, and biomass, acknowledging that there were no perfect technologies.

Pruss described one concern he had about wood biomass as a fuel source for new power plants. He noted that the state is aware of proposed biomass plants in northern Michigan capable of generating almost 200 megawatts of power. The TCL&P proposed plant would generate 10 mw.

“Here is my concern with biomass,” Pruss said, “not that we don’t have the supply and not that we can’t harvest that supply and deliver it in a sustainable way. We can. The concern is that we have a lot of potential biomass fuel projects both for combustion and biofuels, more of the former than the latter. But there are new projects that pop up. If they do advance they would be competing for the same supply. We don’t know a whole lot about price sensitivity except there is price sensitivity at some point in time.”

Sustainable Forestry

Michigan State University and Michigan Tech are working with DELEG on a major study to better understand how to apply the state’s enormous forest resources – they are larger than all but four other states – to biomass generation for electricity and for biofuels. Other states, among them Massachusetts where similar concerns about forest sustainability have been raised, also are conducting intensive assessments.

“What government can do and should do, and what we are doing — we’re building the capacity with our universities,” Pruss said. “We have consultants doing this. We are spending a lot of money to say this is how much biomass we have. This is our best calculation. This is how much there is. So you can plan and know how much is out there on a sustainable basis.”

The TCL&P wood biomass proposal merits state support, said Pruss, because of the plant’s design. TCL&P proposes to build a plant that generates electricity and steam, what engineers refer to as “cogeneration,” or “combined heat and power.”

The proposed TCL&P biomass plant, which would operate as cleanly as a natural gas-fired plant, and much cleaner than a coal-fired utility, would also be twice as energy efficient as a conventional biomass plant. Its construction would generate jobs and its operation would produce permanent jobs and keep $4 million in the community each year that is currently going to Wyoming, railroads, and a coal-fired utility in Lansing.

An Example For The State
“Your plant, I’m guessing, is 70 to 80 percent efficient,” said Pruss. “That is huge. That means you’re going to be twice as energy efficient as anything out there. I think that so important. That is part of the calculus in the equation of benefits and burden. The fact that your plant is going to be so energy efficient is great. I want you to be an example for other communities around the state.”

“With respect to your plan – because it involves cogeneration which doubles the efficiency of the plant – that is hugely important,” Pruss said. “I know Governor Granholm and I would like that plant to proceed.”

Linda Johnson, chair of the Light & Power board, said after the meeting that she was pleased with Pruss’ analysis of the board’s plans. She also shrugged off criticism that Light & Power was rushing into a decision, noting that board members have been studying biomass since 2005 during a tour of energy plants in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.

“We have not been in a rush,” she said. “We have been doing this for four years, and it’s taken us this long to establish what our needs are. To just sit back and do nothing would be irresponsible at this point.”

— Keith Schneider with Steve Kellman, who is a former reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Grassroots Resistance to Clean Energy Projects

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A few months ago I became a communications adviser working several hours per week with Traverse City Light & Power, a small municipal utility in my home region that has proposed to acquire 30 percent of its power by 2020 from local renewable resources.

In pursuit of that goal TCL&P has purchased 10 mw of wind power from a windfarm in McBain, Michigan 50 miles south. It also purchased 2 mw of landfill gas generation and is investing in new solar capacity.

TCL&P also has proposed building a 10 mw wood biomass gasification plant that also would generate heat energy for nearby industries and businesses. (The wood biomass plant in the picture above is in Middlebury, Vermont.) But the combined heat and power plant has encountered surprising resistance from a number of ardent environmentalists, including the grassroots Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, this year celebrating its 30th anniversary, which worries about emissions, ash disposal, and the consequences to the region’s forests. If you read the TCL&P Web page, you’ll see that the plant would burn as cleanly as a natural gas plant, produce ash that is non-toxic, and that a sustainable forestry program is at the top of TCL&P’s priorities.

Resistance to Clean Energy Nationwide
The push back from the environmental community, though, prompted me to wonder how many other clean energy projects around the country are encountering similar grassroots resistance? I am concerned about a number of things, including the potential for a damaging schism to develop in the environmental community over clean energy and climate action.

I work in Washington now as media and communications director of the U.S. Climate Action Network. I know that on the one hand national organizations are pushing hard in DC to limit carbon emissions and for more money to finance the clean energy transition. National and state organizations also are pressing state governments and legislatures to enact or increase Renewable Portfolio Standards  and other clean energy and climate measures.

On the other hand, at the grassroots in more than 30 states, citizen opposition has developed to campaign against the renewable technologies that hold the most promise to replace coal. In some cases the opposition is led by local affiliates of national organizations we work with — Sierra Club in particular.

It’s important to note that my colleagues and friends in the environmental community are not nearly as concerned as I am. One colleague told me she views the grassroots opposition as part of the traditional checks and balances that have distinguished modern American environmentalism. A colleague here in Michigan, during a long conversation on the grassroots push back, said that in many cases the opposition was generated by local landowners and others who are not connected to the environmental movement.

State Projects in Play

Taking all that into consideration I’ll treat the reporting exercise in this post and others to follow with care, as I always do. Here in Michigan, along with the resistance to the TCL&P 30BY20 plan, grassroots campaigns also are active to block offshore wind energy development in Lake Michigan (shoreline owners are fighting viewshed issues) and to stem wind development in Michigan’s thumb
region (noise and vibration are issues.) The Sierra Club’s local chapter is active in the Traverse City fight. Citizens who’ve organized under local green banners are active in the other two.

I did some research over the weekend and documented the following:

1. Active grassroots campaigns opposing wind farms in 16 states.
2. Active grassroots campaigns opposing solar thermal plants in 4 states.
3. Active grassroots campaigns opposing geothermal development in 3 states.
4. Active grassroots campaigns opposing wood biomass plants in 11 states.
5. Active grassroots campaigns opposing new electrical transmission lines in 8 states.

In my mind this is one of the important and as yet untold stories of the clean energy transition. The default position for the projects that fail to get permitted or built because of citizen opposition is more coal or more natural gas. And I haven’t even addressed the nuclear issue.

There are a number of ways to cut at this but it’s critical, in my view, to start addressing it in some way. I have lots of ideas about how. I worry that ideology in our ranks is outflanking pragmatism and leadership. The politics of stasis that marred Copenhagen and have taken hold in DC aren’t just about Rush and the G.O.P. and the lack of White House moxie.

In this era of change, swift transitions occurring across all realms are making people so nervous they are more clear about accepting the risks they know than taking a chance with risks they don’t.

I’ll be writing more. Keep in touch.

— Keith Schneider