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Spatial Justice Tests

- by Aaron Kreider, Energy Justice Network 
 
One of the main goals of Energy Justice Network's Justice Map project is to demonstrate the role that income and race play in the siting of dirty facilities. You can use Justice Map (by clicking on Advanced Mode) to analyze the race and income of people who live within, say, 1 mile of a facility and compare it to those who live further.
 
If you have a set of facilities (or anything else) that you want to analyze, we have also created a Spatial Justice Test. You can apply this test to our data set of power plants, and answer questions like "Who lives near operating trash incinerators?" Or you can use the test on your own data set.
 

Study: Thinning Forests for Bioenergy Can Worsen Climate

 

A new study out of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon concludes that selectively logging or “thinning” forests for bioenergy can increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change.

The study, “Thinning Combined With Biomass Energy Production May Increase, Rather Than Reduce, Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” by D.A. DellaSala and M. Koopman, challenges bioenergy and timber industry assertions that logging forests will aid in the fight against climate change.

DellaSala and Koopman also refute assumptions that wildfires are bigger or more severe than in the past, citing multiple studies showing that the occurrence of wildfire has actually “changed little from historical (early European settlement) times.”

The Western Governor’s Association has stated that 10.6 million acres of western forests are available for “hazardous fuel reduction.” Yet, instead of instead of the build up of “fuel” (aka small trees and understory plants) being the main driver of large wildfire, the study authors blame climate, namely drought and high temperatures, explaining that, “during severe weather events, even thinned sites will burn.”

Instead of preventing large wildfires, the study argues that thinning can increase the chance of severe fire by opening the forest canopy which can dry out the forest, leaving flammable slash piles on the ground, and allowing winds to penetrate the previously sheltered stands, potentially spreading wildfire. Post-fire “salvage” logging is also thought to increase the risk of a re-burn.  

Carbon emissions from wildfire have long been an argument to log forests, in an effort to harness energy from trees that may burn at some point anyway. Yet findings show that after a fire the majority of the carbon remains in dead trees, with severe fires that kill most trees in the area emitting 5-30% of stored carbon. Severe fires account for 12-14% of the area burned in large fires. 

Even in the cases where thinning would be effective at stopping wildfire--typically small fires of limited threat to public safety--the study cites computer simulations estimating a 5-8% chance of a thinned parcel experiencing fire within the first twenty years, when fuels are lowest. The chance of encountering severe fire is 2%.

DellaSala and Koopman also urge an accurate carbon accounting of forest bioenergy, cautioning that the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning woody biomass is “often comparable to coal and much larger than that of oil and natural gas due to inefficiencies in burning wood for fuel compared to more energy- dense fossil fuels.”

In the rare cases in which a thinned forest is allowed to grow back without repeated logging, the several decades over which forests could reabsorb carbon “conflicts with current policy imperatives requiring drastic cuts in emissions over the near term.”

The study warns about “large-scale clearing of forests” at a time when natural forests are needed to buffer the planet against runaway climate change.  

"Woody biomass," said DellaSalla in a December 17 phone interview, "almost never pencils out as an efficient renewable energy source."  

Biomass Power Facilities Idle for Months

 

One of biomass energy’s main selling points is that it’s a baseload source of energy available 24/7, unlike solar and wind. Despite these promises--and hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, grants and loans--several biomass power facilities across the U.S. have been sitting idle for months at a time, thanks to fires, equipment failure, and competition from cheaper energy sources.

Eagle Valley Clean Energy – Gypsum, Colorado

Eagle Valley Clean Energy, an 11.5-megawatt biomass power facility in Gypsum, Colorado began operations in December 2013, only to have its conveyor belt catch fire in December 2014.

Despite assurances from facility spokespeople that they’d resume operations within a few months, the facility is still offline as of November 2015.

While Eagle Valley’s attorney recently said they’d be up and running again by the end of the year, the Town of Gypsum might not let that happen, with town officials pointing out that the facility had been operating without a required certificate of occupancy, according to Vail Daily.

Eagle Valley has received $40 million in loan guarantees from the USDA, a portion of an annual $12.5 million matching payment for feedstock transportation from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (part of the Farm Bill), and a $250,000 biomass utilization grant.

Gainesville Renewable Energy Center – Gainesville, Florida

The Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC), a 100-megawatt biomass power facility in Gainesville, Florida, started burning wood chips for electricity on December 2013.

In August 2015, a lightning strike caused the facility to shut down temporarily, and when it became operational again, Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) decided not to bring it back online. Instead, GRU has relied on power from Deerhaven Generating Station, a coal plant that is “more economic than GREC’s facility,” according to Margaret Crawford, GRU Communications Director.

GRU pays about $39 per megawatt for electricity from GREC, while GRU’s other facilities generate electricity between $22 and $36 per megawatt, according to the Gainesville Sun.

On November 4, Deerhaven shut down due to a leak in a steam-generating tube, forcing GRU to bring GREC back online temporarily. GREC was taken offline again on November 11, according to David Warm, Marketing and Communications for GRU. 

Nacogdoches Power – Nacogdoches Texas

Nacogdoches Power, a 100-megawatt biomass power facility owned by Southern Power Company in Nacogdoches, Texas, went online in June 2012, but was not operational for a total of 17 months, as of July 2015 (the most recent data by the Energy Information Administration).

Austin Energy purchases all of the power from the facility, which adds $2 a month to customers’ utility bills, according to the Statesman.

Austin Energy acknowledges the “disproportionate expense” of the facility, and doesn’t plan to extend the twenty year contract.

Aspen Biomass – Lufkin, Texas

Aspen Biomass, a 50-megawatt biomass power facility owned by NRG Energy Services in Lufkin, Texas came online in September 2011, sitting idle a total of 16 months over the next four years.

The facility shutdown was blamed on “market economics,” according to Biomass Magazine.

WE Energies – Rothschild, Wisconsin

WE Energies and Domtar Corp’s 50-megawatt biomass power facility opened in Rothschild, Wisconsin in November 2013.

After generating no electricity in October 2014, it was taken offline from December 2014 through May 2015 for repairs on the electrical generating steam turbine and leaks in the condenser tubes. During its first full year, it was operational only 16% of the time, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. During this time, the facility used more energy than it generated.

“To run the plant would have been more costly than other options like running our natural gas plant or buying power on the market,” We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said, according to Midwest Energy News.

The facility has reportedly been operational again since June 2015. 

Biomass Energy Growing Pains

 

Several biomass power facilities have come online over the last few years in Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, and Hawaii, but not without difficulties, including fires, inefficient equipment, lawsuits, and competing with the low price of natural gas.

Gypsum, Colorado

Eagle Valley Clean Energy, an 11.5-megawatt biomass power facility in Gypsum, Colorado started operating in December 2013, only to have its conveyor belt catch fire in December 2014. Spokespersons said the facility would be back online shortly, yet as of October, it’s still offline. There have been no further media reports investigating why the facility still isn’t operating, and multiple calls and emails to the facility were not returned.  

Another thorn in Eagle Valley’s claw is a lawsuit filed against the company in U.S. District Court in June 2015 by Wellons, Inc., an Oregon-based corporation that designed and built the biomass facility.

Wellons is suing Eagle Valley Clean Energy for $11,799,864 for breach of contract, accusing the company of “fraudulent transfers” and “civil conspiracy,” involving the transferring of $18.5 million of federal subsidies to “insider” parties in an alleged effort to hide the money. The money was issued to the facility from the federal government under Section of 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the Stimulus, involving payments to reimburse companies building renewable energy facilities.

Wellons claims that, on top of the nearly twelve million dollars Eagle Valley must pay them, they are owed past due interest of $1,185,433.56, with debt accruing at $3254.90 per day.

Another bump in the road for Eagle Valley involves the Chapter 11 bankcruptcy of the logging contractor that provides them the trees to fuel the facility, West Range Reclamation. West Range has provided nearly all of the wood to the facility since it opened, mostly from beetle-killed lodgepole pine from the White River National Forest.

Nacogdoches, Texas

Southern Power’s Nacogdoches Generating Facility, a 100-megawatt biomass power facility in Nacogdoches, Texas, opened in 2012 only to sit idle much of the time due to an inability to compete with the low price of natural gas, according to Reuters.

Rothschild, Wisconsin

In November 2013, WE Energies and Domtar Corp’s 50-megawatt biomass power facility opened in Rothschild, Wisconsin. However, it was offline from December 2014 through May 2015 for repairs, and was operational only 16% of the time during its first full year, in part due to an inability to compete with the low price of natural gas, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

Gainesville, Florida

The Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC), a 100-megawatt biomass power facility, came online in Gainesville, Florida in 2013, and soon ran into controversy with noise complaints from neighbors.

In October 2014, the Gainesville City Commission approved an audit to look into financial transactions between Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) and GREC, which increased costs for the utility and its customers.

In April 2015, Wood Resource Recovery, one of the main fuel suppliers for GREC, sued the facility for breach of contract for $5 million in damages. Part of the complaint has to do with GREC’s refusal to take yard waste and materials from agriculturally zoned properties.

In August, the facility shut down temporarily, and when it became operational again, Gainesville Regional Utilities decided not to bring it back online, with no “projected return to service at this current time,” according to Margaret Crawford, GRU Communications Director. Instead, GRU is relying on power that is “more economic than GREC’s facility.”

In September, the city audit report uncovered that Gainesville Regional Utilities was paying $56,826 more per month than it was supposed to, totaling $900,000 in over-payments. 

Koloa, Hawaii

Green Energy Team’s 7.5-megawatt biomass power facility in Koloa, Hawaii, was scheduled to start up in April 2015, but the official opening has been pushed back to November because the efficiency level from burning wood chips was lower than it should be, according to The Garden Island. The turbine was dismantled and reassembled, and is currently undergoing more testing. 

Energy's Water Footprint

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

In 2005, thermoelectric power plants (nuclear, coal, oil, gas and trash/biomass incinerators) were responsible for 41% of all freshwater withdrawals and 49% of total water withdrawals (including oceans and brackish waters) in the U.S. Much of this water (mainly used for cooling) is returned to local water bodies, but at a higher temperature, which can be harmful to aquatic life. A large portion is also evaporated, so total water consumption is still quite significant.

These thermoelectric power plants consume an average of 800 gallons per megawatthour, ranging from 600 to 1,100 gal/MWh.  This means that a 500 megawatt power plant running at 90% capacity would use 2.4 to 4.4 Billion gallons of water each year for cooling.  About 85% of this is evaporated, draining rivers and aquifers. The balance is returned to the river as a heated solution containing concentrated pollutants like aluminum and phosphorus.

Some biomass incinerators have sought to use sewage effluent (the liquids that are separated out at a sewage treatment plant) as cooling water. Sewage effluent is a highly contaminated solution containing disinfection byproducts, metals and numerous classes of discarded and excreted biologically active chemicals such as active pharmaceutical ingredients and personal care products, endocrine disrupting compounds, mutagenic cytotoxins and others. These pollutants can contaminate the air when that water is evaporated. Whatever isn’t evaporated will concentrated in the wastewater that the biomass facilities release into local water bodies.

Air cooling is an alternative to water-based cooling, but is noisier and more expensive. Some state regulators have allowed water cooling based on company claims that air cooling is cost prohibitive.

Growing crop-based biomass also requires a lot of water. The biomass industry favors trees and wood waste it doesn’t have to grow, but of the available energy crops, quick-growing, high-yield plants like Miscanthus are preferred. Such crops are also quite demanding. 

A review of the Miscanthus-burning biomass incinerator proposed for Jasper, Indianafound that Miscanthus is a thirsty crop, requiring irrigation in areas like Southern Indiana, where rainful is insufficient and global warming is worsening droughts. The research found that Miscanthus is not drought-tolerant, even for a single season, and that without irrigation, Miscanthus’ yields are variable/low. However, it is unlikely that irrigation of Miscanthus will be economically viable, since biomass production must be low cost and low input, and establishment of a Miscanthus crop requires expensive transplanting of plantlets.

Because Miscanthus has a deep, dense root mat, extending far deeper than corn roots, it sucks up more water and dries out soil more than corn or soy. European researchers have expressed concern that Miscanthus production may prevent ground water restoration and diminish groundwater.

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.

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

carbon power plantState 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."

Biomass Corporation Sues Federal Gov’t for $47 Million

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

department of the treasuryMeadWestvaco 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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