When It Comes to Climate and Clean Energy, “Just Say No” Has Become Too Popular

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Monday, in the parlance of Washington policy and journalism, was scheduled to be a potential day of breakthrough in the work to achieve action on the warming climate. Senators John Kerry (Mass.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) had announced that they’d come to consensus on what a bipartisan energy and climate policy fit for the 21st century looked like. The results were to be unveiled at a news briefing that had global import.

Instead nothing happened. It was like reeling in a sailfish, all fight and silvery splash, only to have the beast die on the way into the boat.

This is the third time in five months that that I’ve been involved in climate and clean energy campaigns that culminated in less than they promised. “Just say no” is emerging as a far easier answer than saying yes to progress.

In Copenhagen in December, nearly 200 nations gathered at the largest summit ever with the express purpose of reaching agreement on a climate treaty. Instead what they came up with was a novel accord that points in the right direction and may not achieve more than that.

In Traverse City, a small utility’s bid to acquire 30 percent of its energy from local renewable resources, including a state-of-the-art clean right-sized clean burning 10 mw wood biomass plant, generated such fierce hyperbole about unfounded risks among some environmentalists that you’d have thought the utility was proposing a 100-acre toxic waste site for the middle of town. The local push back, led by a grassroots environmental group, is consistent with similar resistance in 30 other states to proposals for new wind, solar, geothermal, wood biomass, and transmission lines. This week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide on a big offshore wind farm in Massachusetts that has been the focus on a popular opposition campaign. The clean energy transition may not be televised.

Now comes the Senate’s attempt to push through a climate and energy bill, which over the weekend got washed up on the shoals of partisanship, immigration policy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election, and the powerful climate change-denying communications machine operated by America’s fossil fuel collective.

Today, Senator Reid retreated just a bit and sought to assure his Democratic and Republican colleagues that debate on the climate and energy bill would come before debate on the immigration bill. That makes sense since there is no immigration bill to debate in the Senate. But Graham, a very lonely Republican in the climate and clean energy space, has not yet indicated whether he’s ready to participate in introducing the ready-to-go energy bill that he’s spent months shaping with Senators Kerry and Lieberman.

The politics of stasis — of doing nothing — is brought action on climate change to a crawl, and that may be kind. The public will to act, to reduce emissions of carbon, to provide for the safety of the planet and all its inhabitants, is just not apparent in the United States, or in much of the rest of the developed world.

Clearly, a new operating program is needed politically and a new communications frame and strategy needs to be developed. Today the Environmental Protection Agency made public a new report on climate change effects that are getting worse:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing. Between 1990 and 2008, there has been about a 14 percent increase in emissions in the United States.
  • Average temperatures are rising. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental United States have occurred since 1990.
  • Tropical cyclone intensity has increased in recent decades. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.
  • Sea levels are rising. From 1993 to 2008, sea level rose twice as fast as the long-term trend.
  • Glaciers are melting. Loss of glacier volume appears to have accelerated over the last decade.
  • The frequency of heat waves has risen steadily since the 1960s. The percentage of the U.S. population impacted by heat waves has also increased.

Still, people in the United States aren’t much concerned. They are clearly indicating,  in grassroots fights and in support for lawmakers who counsel to do nothing, that they are satisfied with the way things are. That is a dangerous sentiment in an unsettled world making powerful and swift transitions in every important sector — the economy, markets, the environment, energy, population, and competition for resources.

— 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

Cape Wind Awaits Federal Approval

cape-wind-farmAs the 40th anniversary of Earth Day draws closer, wind energy developers in Massachusetts are awaiting word from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about a permit to proceed. Cape Wind, which wants to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm near Nantucket, earlier this month reached agreement with Siemens to purchase 130 turbines, a move praised by Massachusetts Democratic Governor Deval Patrick and Ian Bowles, the Massachusetts secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

It’s difficult to see how the Obama administration, which pressed for more than $100 billion in clean energy investment in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus bill), would disapprove the Cape Wind permit. The project, though, has come under fire from the Kennedys and other prominent Massachusetts families. And the fight over whether to proceed has gone on for most of a decade.

Like Michigan, some Massachusetts citizens and grassroots environmental organizations are fighting the advent of the clean energy transition with everything they’ve got. Massachusetts last year put a moratorium on wood biomass development pending the completion of an independent analysis of the risks that is due to be finished by June 1. And wind projects are not only opposed off Nantucket. Several more on Cape Cod have come under fire from citizens.

In Michigan, meanwhile, offshore wind projects in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan have raised concerns, largely due to aesthetic reasons. And a state-of-the-art wood biomass plant has caused a small ruckus in Traverse City, where critics assert it will result in a “slaughter” of the state’s forest. Fuss disclosure: I am assisting the utility in its public communications and engagement strategy.

A friend of mine, a prominent editor in Traverse City, called the other day to express is his dismay at the stridency, crazy facts, outright wrong assertions and scare tactics, even extremism deployed by a number of environmental voices in the biomass debate. “I always believed that what lay behind so much of the local environmental movement here was just NIMBYism,” he said. “This debate has just confirmed it.”

Indeed, it’s not a proud moment for those of us who’ve been involved a long time and sweat the details of public campaigning, applying real facts, reason, maturity and pragmatism in struggles as important as the clean energy transition is to northern Michigan, the state, and the nation.

— Keith Schneider

Blocking Wood Biomass, Blocking Coal in Michigan — Does it Make Sense?

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Eartha Jane Melzer, one of the reporters in Michigan whose work merits close attention, posted a piece a week ago on Michigan Messenger that described the legal work the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council are doing to block a big new coal-fired power plant in Bay City.

Here is one of the important events associated with the transition to the clean energy economy. On one hand environmental organizations are pursuing legal suits and other actions in and out of Michigan to block new coal-fired utilities. More than 100 new coal-fired plant proposals have been halted, according to the Sierra Club. Last year at the Democratic National Convention I had a chance to speak to Carl Pope, then the Club’s executive director. He confirmed my sense that the Beyond Coal campaign was the most successful grassroots organizing project in the Sierra Club’s 118-year history.

That’s a good thing for the planet and the advent of the transition away from polluting, expensive, and obsolete fossil fuel.

On the other hand citizen groups, NIMBY’s, and other local advocates have joined with a number of grassroots environmental organizations around the nation, including one in Traverse City, and are seeking to block important clean and renewable alternatives. I’ve been writing about the grassroots push back here on Mode Shift. I became interested — full disclosure — after Traverse City Light & Power asked me to help them design and execute a public information and engagement program to enable citizens to help choose an appropriate renewable energy path.

I’ve found that all of the clean energy alternatives are under pressure — wind, solar, geothermal, transmission lines, and biomass here in Michigan. Even efforts to improve energy efficiency are having a hard time being implemented in communities. The WSJ wrote a piece about that earlier this year from Boulder, Colo.

For the moment and the foreseeable future utilities in Michigan and the Midwest have five choices to supply baseload energy — the kind that runs 24/7, 365, which is not yet available with wind and solar. They have coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear, and wood biomass.

In almost every case in which alternatives are under challenge, Traverse City included, the default position for utilities is more coal or more natural gas. Efficiency and conservation gets you part of the way to a solution, but only part of the way. Power is still needed for families and businesses and industry.

The Traverse City utility has bought wind, bought landfill gas, investigated solar, and proposes to build a state of the art, clean-burning (much cleaner than coal), efficient combined heat and power, right-scaled (10 mw), home-grown (fits the region’s move to local foods, local regional land use and transportation plan), gasification wood biomass plant fueled by waste wood from Michigan’s timber and forest industry. It would employ 20 to manage the plant and 20 involved in supplying fuel. Among the array of available alternatives to Michigan’s coal-fired power plants, a state-of-the-art plant that burns wood at small scale seems to me to be a prudent way to proceed.

I recognize this is tough stuff. In my career as a grassroots environmental advocate, and founder and former executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, when we got in the way of a Wal-Mart (Charlevoix, early 2000s,) the region retained a wetland and an intact downtown business center. When we replaced bypasses in Petoskey and Traverse City, we got back intact wild rivers, forests, and land use and transportation plans designed to foster more compact and prosperous communities. When we helped kill proposals to drill for natural gas and oil along the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron shorelines, we preserved some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

When grassroots environmental organizations oppose a right-scaled, local, state-of-the-art, clean-burning wood biomass plant their “win” is no victory at all. If they succeed we all get more coal, likely from the same new plants that their major environmental organization brothers are trying to block.

— 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.