EXCLUSIVE: Biomass Energy and the Carbon Neutral Shell Game

- by Brett Leuenberger, July 6, 2015 (Graphics by Brett Leuenberger)
 
Related Content: Biomass Incineration and Climate (debunking carbon neutrality)
Who would have ever thought that clean renewable energy could come from a smokestack? And yet, according to our U.S. government and the biomass industry, that’s exactly what’s happening when you burn trees (biomass) for energy. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to renewable energy, I think of wind turbines and solar panels producing clean, emission-free renewable energy.
 
While the final rulemaking process for biomass emissions is still in review, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released this memo last November from Janet McCabe to industry stakeholders, which endorses most biomass emissions as carbon neutral:
 
  • "For waste-derived feedstocks, the EPA intends to propose exempting biogenic CO2 emissions from GHG BACT analyses and anticipates basing that proposal on the rationale that those emissions are likely to have minimal or no net atmospheric contributions of biogenic CO2 emissions, or even reduce such impacts, when compared with an alternate fate of disposal."
Most of us can agree with the fact that we’re facing unprecedented global climate change due to our use of fuels that emit greenhouse gases (mainly carbon) into the atmosphere. There are a few possible ways to address this global climate challenge. One way is to vastly reduce or terminate our use of carbon emitting fuel sources by transitioning to emission-free energy sources like wind, solar and tidal. We could expand on that idea by creating hyper-local communities that focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy through the use of micro-grids. That’s why the carbon emissions from biomass are so critically important, especially as we look to our future energy and transportation needs and how those choices affect our earth’s climate.
 
The Biomass Boondoggle
 
There are multiple environmental issues with burning wood for biomass energy. Burning wood (pulp, chips, trimmings, sawdust residues and whole trees) for biomass energy actually emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than fossil fuels. Compared to fossil fuels, woody biomass is significantly less energy efficient and you need to burn at least twice as much wood to produce the same amount of thermal energy. For example, one ton of wood pellets produce 16.5 million BTU’s of energy while one ton of #2 fuel oil produces (52% more) 33.8 million BTU’s of energy.
 
Burning trees for biomass is a double whammy for the environment; not only are you adding more carbon emissions than fossil fuels, but you are also removing trees that work as carbon sinks and sequester vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. The biomass industry claims they use low value waste wood for fuel, but overwhelming evidence shows the industry repeatedly using whole trees for biomass and wood pellet production. 
 
Similarly, the industry is not obligated to account for the immediate or future loss of carbon sequestration from harvested trees. When compared to other “free” renewable energy sources like wind and solar, biomass energy is considerably more expensive to operate and requires long-term costs for sourcing the woody biomass fuel. Likewise, using woody biomass as a fuel source for electric utility power is not always cost effective in a competitively priced energy market. Here’s an example of a biomass plant forced to shut down; it was cheaper to remain idle than trying to supply power to the grid, leaving ratepayers on the hook.
 
The emissions from woody biomass contain high concentrations of particulates, which increase the air quality health risks to humans. Burning biomass exacerbates the problem of ocean acidification by taking locked-up terrestrial carbon (trees) and transforming it to atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is the major cause of ocean acidification. The growing U.S. biomass industry is creating an increased demand for wood, which can escalate clearcutting, deforestation, forest fragmentation, land-use changes and species habitat loss, as pointed out in this multi-disciplinary collegiate study from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Remembering Marvin Wheeler

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network 
 
When we formed Allentown Residents for Clean Air (ARCA) in 2012, we couldn't have kicked it off without Marvin Wheeler, who found us as an active member of the West Park Civic Association. As a retired school nurse, Marvin understood the health threat posed by the plan to burn 150 tons a day of trash and sewage sludge in the heart of Pennsylvania's third largest city.
 
Surrounded by schools, parks, playgrounds, public housing, a hospital, and a prison, this experimental incinerator was a threat to all that Marvin held dear.  
 
"Keep in mind, this is a brown and black low-income neighborhood," he reminded us. "I think they picked this site because of the county prison that's over there... it's like 'kill the prisoners a littler earlier, before they finish their sentences.'"
 
It saddens us that he is no longer with us to see the fruits of the victory he helped make possible. When others weren't available to help, Marvin organized a petitioners committee and kicked off the effort to bring the issue to the voters. He helped us collect the thousands of signatures we needed to get the Allentown Clean Air Ordinance we drafted onto the city ballot so that the people could choose to adopt protections from incinerator pollution. In freezing winter weather, Marvin worked hard on collecting signatures, slogging from door to door with us, welcoming us into his home, and introducing us to other key people in the community. His warm and humorous personality kept us going in the frantic drive to collect enough signatures in the city's initiative process.
 
While we didn't win the way we had planned (at the polls), the incinerator deal has fallen apart in the past several months. As one of the original petitioners, Marvin is named in our lawsuit over the ordinance initiative (which is still in the courts, as we fight over the right for people to vote on such matters). The delays killed the project as permits and investors were also tied up. The 35-year waste supply contract with the city was canceled by the city late last year. The company's air permit was rescinded a few months ago, and their waste permit (which we also legally challenged) was just revoked as well.
 
As a medical professional, Marvin was teaching kids about asthma triggers and understood that incinerator would be a large one. He spoke about how asthma inhalers and medicines just treat the symptom after the disease, and spoke of the need to be proactive, not reactive. 
 
"The issue here is air quality... and when you think about that and the number of children in this area and the school less than a half a mile from here... what impact does it have on those middle school children?"
 
Here is a fantastic video of Marvin speaking about the struggle, and how "we have to do something different" with green jobs and recycling, not incineration.

Are Media Outlets Megaphones for Polluters?

Are Media Outlets Megaphones for Polluters?
 
Thursday, May 21, 2015 at 5pm PST / 8 ET
 
Guest Speaker: Steve Horn, Investigative Journalist

Are media outlets doing an adequate job covering the health and environmental impacts of dirty energy corporations and other polluters?

Not according to Steve Horn, a Madison, Wisconsin-based freelance investigative journalist and writer for DeSmogBlog. Steve has found an alarming trend in one-sided media reporting on energy issues, making it difficult for the public to make informed decisions about climate change, air pollution, and our energy future.

Join Steve on Thursday, May 21 at 5 pm PT / 8 pm ET to get the scoop on media’s scanty reporting on corporate polluters and what you can do about it.

 

Find audio archives of past calls here

Solar Generation May Sideline Biomass Heating

[Note: this article is written by long-time wood stove cheerleader, John Ackerly.  It's nice to see him admitting that his wood-burning dreams are about to be dashed by solar power.  Energy Justice does not support combustion sources for heating, since non-burn alternatives exist, and since there are many pollution and health problems relating to wood stoves.]

- John Ackerly, May 1, 2015, Biomass Magazine

Most of us have looked at the explosive growth of solar photovoltaic systems as just a parallel and complementary renewable energy technology.  Solar panels make kilowatts while wood and pellet stoves make Btus, right?  Wrong.

To stay relevant, the biomass heating industry needs to keep abreast of rapid advances in the solar industry. We also need to think of ways to integrate our technology with other renewables, and we need to explore how that integration can happen right away, because renewable energy policy decisions being made now will impact our industry in coming decades.

The solar industry has a vision, ambition and plan for rapid expansion that is largely absent in the wood and pellet stove community.  Pathways for rapid expansion of pellet technologies are being developed in Europe, but not in the U.S.  While solar advocates are focused on a wide range of financing options, regulatory frameworks, R&D, utility partnerships, the wood and pellet stove industry seems to put more effort into trying to maintain the status quo and fight against regulations. 

Media Disinformation on Biomass

- by Chris Matera, Massachusetts Forest Watch 

Some people might call it a media failure that tree-fueled biomass energy, one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive forms of energy that exists, has a “clean” and “green” reputation with much of the public. 

It is not a media failure, it is a media success when we acknowledge that the mainstream media does not work for the public, or for uncovering the truth about matters of importance, and has devolved into nothing but paid distributors of misinformation used to benefit their corporate masters.   

That so many can be led to believe that a drastic increase in cutting and burning of forests is going to “lower” carbon emissions, and “help” the environment, in spite of indisputable, strong scientific evidence and common sense to the contrary, is a sad testimony to this malevolent power. 

This serious problem of media disinformation at the service of wealthy and powerful interests cuts across all issues of importance to the public. If called upon to do so by their paymasters, these "presstitutes" will diligently work to convince the public of anything, even that water runs uphill.  

With biomass energy, even the label "biomass" is indicative of the spin applied to most issues today. If the public were told they are going to be forced to subsidize a massive increase of cutting and burning of forests to “help” the environment, they would likely object. 

Instead they are sold industry funded, think tank created, focus group tested fuzzy labels like “biomass” and convinced that fact is fiction, and yet again, society marches off on the exact opposite path we need to be on, in order to do the bidding of a few self serving vested interests. 

In this case, the timber and energy industries, with the crucial support of the "presstitute" media, have snookered a well intentioned public into thinking they are sacrificing to help our environment, when in fact, under a “green” fog, they are literally paying the planet wreckers to increase cutting and burning of forests, which is just about the worst thing possible for global warming, air pollution and forest protection.

Oregon Senate OK’s Carbon Neutral Biomass Bill

- April 9, 2015, KTVZ

State Sen. Tim Knopp (R- Bend) carried Senate Bill 752 on the Senate floor Monday and the effort to declare biomass "carbon-neutral" sailed through unanimously.

SB 752 declares biomass to be carbon neutral, taking a rule previously created by the Department of Environmental Quality and making it law. It is chief sponsored by Knopp and Sen. Chris Edwards (D-Eugene), chair of the Senate Environment and National Resources Committee.

The bill passed out of committee last week on a bipartisan, unanimous vote and did the same on the Senate floor Monday.

"I believe it's important for Oregon to endorse the carbon neutrality of biomass. We have the opportunity to create jobs while also pursuing sound environmental policy." said Knopp.

SB 752 now heads to the House, where Knopp hopes it will be taken up soon. "This is a good bill, especially for rural Oregon," he said." I'm looking forward to the House sending this bill to the governor for her signature."

Chinese Incinerator Plan Cancelled After Thousands Join Protests

- by Mimi Lau, April 9, 2015, South China Morning Post

A western Guangdong city has cancelled a plan to build an incinerator that prompted a protest - of up to 10,000 people on some accounts - during which three police cars were flipped and a duty office vandalised.

Luoding city government posted two letters on its website on Wednesday announcing the decision. One informed the Langtang township government that it had decided to cancel the project, which Langtang had brokered with China Resources Cement Holdings. The second urged residents to stop blocking roads, vandalising property or disturbing public order.

The decision came after residents of the town engaged in a defiant stand-off with police on Tuesday, in protest against what they said was the violent handling of a peaceful sit-in against the incinerator on Monday.

"People are angry with the site selection of the incinerator as it is within a 1km radius of people's homes," said one young resident. "The cement factory is producing enough pollution, we don't need another polluter."

Shuttered Claremont, New Hampshire Incinerator to Reopen

- by Patrick O’Grady, April 15, 2015, Valley News

The shuttered Wheelabrator incinerator on Grissom Lane was sold at auction Tuesday for $1.63 million, with the buyer saying he plans to use it to burn municipal waste.

As several bidders stood outside the plant hoping to pick up pieces of equipment at a bargain price, auctioneer Stuart Millner explained that he would allow a bidder to buy everything, including about 9 acres of land.

Millner started the bidding at $1.5 million and Ed Deely — who said he was there on behalf of Hybrid Tech Farms — quickly raised it to the final price of $1.63 million. Other bidders who were not present at the site communicated with Millner by phone, but it was unclear how many there were.

The sale price was referred to as “restricted,” which Deely explained means there will be restrictions, agreed to with Wheelabrator, on the municipalities from which the company can accept solid waste. Late Tuesday, Deely said it is too early to predict when the sale would be finalized or when the plant would start burning trash.

Biomass Corporation Sues Federal Gov’t for $47 Million

- by Jacob Fischler, April 9, 2015, Law 360

MeadWestvaco Virginia Corp. slapped the federal government with a $47 million suit in the Court of Federal Claims on Thursday, alleging the U.S. Department of Treasury underpaid the company for the construction of a biomass energy generator.

Under Section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the government was obligated to pay 30 percent of the qualified cost to MeadWestvaco of building an open-loop biomass energy facility at its Covington, Virginia, paper mill in 2013, or about $85.9 million, the company says.

But the government paid only about $38.9 million. Most of the power produced at the facility was sold to Virginia Electric & Power Co., but the government made the reduction on the grounds that the company was reusing some of the excess low-pressure steam from the biomass facility to heat the facility itself and the nearby paper mill, the company says.

MeadWestvaco argues it was actually being more efficient in its use of the low-pressure steam and said the government’s logic was completely off-base.

“The government's determination is so erroneous and uninformed that it is entitled to no deference and should be discarded completely,” the complaint says.

Because Section 1603 is a money-mandating statute, qualifying projects automatically earn reimbursement of 30 percent of their costs for the necessary parts of the projects, MeadWestvaco says. The total cost to the company of building the biomass facility was $291 million, with $286 million used on qualifying portions.

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