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Biomass: Boon or Bugaboo?

A utility’s big move toward renewables prompts a closer look

January 20, 2010 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

U.S. Energy Information Agency
  Michigan’s forestry industry generates tons of woodchips, but some question whether burning them for electricity makes environmental and economic sense.
TRAVERSE CITY—When Traverse City Light & Power announced plans last year to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, including coal, to make electricity, the municipal utility earned widespread praise.

TCL&P said it planned to make 30 percent of its electricity renewable by 2020—almost triple the goal set by recent state mandates.

The company said that to reach its goal it might burn woody biomass—primarily waste wood from existing forestry operations. The utility explained that, while significant amounts of its renewable power could come from wind turbines, biomass seemed necessary for providing renewable “base load” power—particularly given the recemt removal of several area hydroelectric dams.

The biomass proposal, however, prompted criticism from some area environmentalists, who say that Michigan’s forests can’t handle the demand for waste wood.

TCL&P officials have held several public meetings to explain their company’s renewable goals and the choices it has for reaching them. The meetings attracted standing-room-only crowds; another occurs this Thursday evening at 5 p.m. at TCL&P’s offices, at 1131 Hastings Street, in Traverse City.

TCL&P’s move to renewables offers a sneak preview of some of the controversies utilities will face as they employ more renewable energy, ranging from the harm wind turbines might cause birds or views, to how solar power plants might disturb desert ecosystems.

When it comes to biomass, those questions—already raised in communities now considering biomass plants, including Traverse City, Mancelona, Rogers City, and Marquette—seem fairly straightforward.

Is biomass power sustainable? Is it truly “carbon neutral”? And is it an economically sensible way to help utilities move away from coal while awaiting new green technologies that solve the base load problem without burning fossil fuel?

The answer to all of those questions is that it depends.

According to experts interviewed for this article, it depends on how many biomass plants are built in a region, how proximate the biomass is, how it is harvested, and how it is burned. And, in Michigan, it depends on whether the state develops a biomass management plan that protects the state’s forests and avoids driving the price of wood to levels harmful to home-heating wood supplies, furniture makers, and home construction.

Other states and several national environmental groups are struggling with these difficult issues, and there are sharp disagreements among some traditional allies.

“The debate is raging right now on biomass,” said Jamey Fidel, of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “The big buzz word, or question right now is, How to do it sustainably. And the fact is, there is not a script.”

Big and Little Plans
TCL&P says it might build three very small biomass plants that would be highly energy efficient thanks to what’s known as “combined heat and power.” Very common in Denmark, CHP sends a plant’s leftover steam to nearby buildings for heating, hot water, and industrial processes.

Most clean-energy experts say CHP is a necessity for biomass because burning wood is so inefficient.

According to TCL&P Executive Director Ed Rice, “This would also reduce the CO2 emissions caused by the present use of natural gas” to heat the same buildings.

According to Mr. Rice, each plant would produce 10 megawatts of electricity—tiny, compared to the 930 MW plant that Consumers Energy wants to build near Bay City. Each biomass plant would burn about 100,000 tons of wood a year.

Of primary concern, he added, is seeing just how much obtainable waste wood there actually is, as well as its price: “If we can’t substantiate a sustainable fuel source, then we would not want to do it.”

Tonight’s TCL&P presentation is from Robert Froese, a Michigan Technological University forester who studies biomass fuel. He will be joined by a representative of the biomass industry.

Last year Mr. Froese studied wood availability within 75 miles of Rogers City for the Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, which wants to use biomass for up to 30 percent of the fuel for its proposed power plant there. He believes that there is enough harvestable woody biomass in northern Michigan to avoid harm to the forests providing it.

Cara Boucher, a state forester and division chief in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, agrees.

“I can say that the state has an abundance of forest resources and that there is biomass available, from a very broad standpoint,” she said, while not specifically endorsing TCL&P’s project.

Mr. Froese said protecting the state’s woodlands requires following Michigan’s existing forestry harvesting guidelines. Different types of wood have different values; biomass plants would target lower-value wood.

“Would we ever take beautiful oak trees and large furniture veneer-grade quality woods and convert them to biomass?” Mr. Froese said. “That is extremely unlikely.”

But such assurances fail to impress some environmentalists, who say there is no way that burning wood for energy is a good idea. One opponent, Traverse City resident Jeff Gibbs, said that if the only choices TCL&P offers are coal and wood, then the firm is misleading the environmental community about the potential for renewables to solve our energy generation.

Many clean-energy advoates say that acting aggressively to improve both residential and business energy efficiency could go a a long way toward eliminating the need for new power plants of any sort. Mr. Gibbs clearly believes that there must be other approaches to meeting a community's power demand than burning wood.

“We are already in some trouble with our forests....and to add another pressure on the forests is my worst nightmare,” said Mr. Gibbs.

M’Lynn Hartwell, a longtime area environmentalist, said biomass is no longer a viable strategy, given that there are now more than a dozen proposed biomass plants in the state. She said that the cumulative demands for wood would be too much.

“If this plant (in Mancelona) is built, it will absolutely eliminate any competing interests in the enclosed forest areas, including, but not limited to biomass plants in central and southern Lower Michigan, and the forestry products industry,” Ms. Hartwell said.

A Sustainable Strategy for Biomass?
However, others maintain that if biomass is done right, it can reduce dependence on coal. But being very careful is paramount.

Don Arnosti, director of forestry programs at the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy Inc., a non-profit in Minneapolis, said biomass should never be viewed as the sole solution for eliminating coal.

“Communities should not look to woody biomass as the silver bullet,” Mr. Arnosti warned. “ I like to describe it as a silver bee-bee…In the right circumstances…with the opportunity to procure wood locally and with low levels of gathering, you may be able to size it right.”

Mr. Arnosti and Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, said that small-scale biomass plants can be a part of an overall energy generation strategy. The NRDC says wood is a particularly promising source of biomass if it is derived from sustainably managed operations or reclaimed waste products.”

Mr. Arnosti said he can speak from personal experience about what can go wrong with biomass proposals. In his hometown Minneapolis a utility turned to biomass more than a decade ago. It was “highly successful because it used mostly waste wood from urban areas—cut-down trees, pallets…But other electric generators saw the success, copied the model, and demand for waste wood spiked.

“The original facility, during the winter time, is now traveling some 150 miles into the forest zone to buy timber to bring to our urban area,” Mr. Arnosti said.

Given wood’s low heat content, he explained, hauling it that far reduces its economic appeal.

One potential solution is requiring biomass facilities to use only certain kinds of wood from very limited, nearby areas.

“I would say if they have a sustainable flow of wood from a 25- to 50-mile radius, you may be talking about economic viability,” Mr. Arnosti said.

But Marvin Roberson, a Michigan forester with the Sierra Club, the national organization leading the  citizen movement that has helped stop more than 100 coal plant proposals in America, strongly doubts that wood can be harvested sustainably for energy generation.

“First, there’s the effects on our forests,” he said. “Our forests are already heavily skewed towards younger, early-successional, fast-growing species, to the detriment of our forested ecosystem, which is in large part missing the bigger older components.

“Biomass generation, in which volume is paramount and grain quality, etc., is not important,” he added, “will further increase the demand to manage for these young, fast-growing species.” He also expressed strong concerns about the effect on forest soils of removing wood that normally is left to decompose.

Carbon Neutrality and Differences of Opinions
There is also intense debate about whether burning biomass is actually “carbon neutral”—that is, whether the heat-trapping gasses the entire process releases are completely re-absorbed by new growth.

The answer is no. Even under ideal circumstances, according to experts, the biomass cycle puts more heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere than are soaked up by the new growth that replaces it—largely due to the CO2 emitted by the equipment that harvests and transports the woody fuel.

But CHP, proper harvesting, and biomass with quick growth cycles can make a big difference in that equation. The experts agree that burning biomass is much better than burning coal, whose “carbon cycle” is millions, not dozens, of years long and whose extraction can cause serious environmental harm, particularly when it involves mountaintop removal.

Michigan Tech’s Mr. Froese says that the biomass controversy underlines the difficult choices our society faces regarding base load energy generation.

“The bigger question is, If we are going to generate electricity, do we want to generate using carbon with a short cycle versus carbon with a long cycle, from coal?” he said. “And a lot of what we are talking about doing is taking advantage of forest operations that exist already.”

Perhaps Michigan can learn from Minnesota: There the growing list of biomass proposals prompted stakeholders, environmentalists, and community leaders to produce a new rules for sustainable biomass harvesting. Eleven other states have done the same thing. In Vermont, the state commissioned a special council to tackle the issue.

But many Michigan environmentalists argue that utilities, including TCL&P, are still not aggressive enough about pursuing the cheapest, cleanest, and quickest rout to expanding base load capacity: energy efficiency, combined with a diverse portfolio of clean, renewable generating technologies.

Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, said efficiency, a balanced approach, and strong community participation in figuring out an energy  plan are key.

“An integrated resource plan is always the best, to put together their best ideas, put it out for public input so that they can refine and improve it,” Ms. Woiwode said.

Glenn Puit is a veteran investigative reporter and a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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