Category Archives: Exclusive

[EXCLUSIVE] Generating Controversy

– by Josh Schlossberg, Earth Island Journal

Kevin Bundy has tramped through his share of forests in California’s Sierra Nevada. Where he sees a diverse ecosystem of ponderosa pine, incense cedar, and white fir, prime wildlife habitats, and one of the world’s best buffers against climate change, many public and private land managers see something different. Of course, they too observe living forests, but they also see tinder for future wildfires, as well as an opportunity to procure home-grown, renewable biomass energy.

A senior attorney with the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, Bundy works at the national level to ensure strict accounting of carbon emissions from the burning of biomass, and on the local level to limit the type of fuels burned by biomass facilities. He’s convinced that the nation needs to “get away from fossil fuels and shift to 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as possible,” given the threat of climate change. But while he acknowledges biomass might be renewable “in some sense,” he sees it as “something of a false solution to our climate and energy challenges” compared to other renewable sources like solar and wind.

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[EXCLUSIVE] Bioenergy Industry Consultant Critiques Scientists’ Letter to Congress

– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor

A white paper by a bioenergy industry consulting firm critiques a recent letter sent to Congress by 65 U.S. scientists opposing a carbon neutral “biomass” amendment to an energy policy bill, saying the letter includes “flawed logic,” “factual errors,” and “hyperbolic language.”

Carbon Neutrality

William Strauss, Ph.D., president and founder of Maine-based FutureMetrics, a global consultant in the wood pellet industry, agrees that not all biomass energy is automatically carbon neutral, as the amendment in the Energy Policy Modernization Act (approved by the House and Senate), would determine.

However, Strauss and a number of other bioenergy supporters “strongly disagree with the experts’ characterization in their letter to Congress that biomass is never carbon neutral.”

Strauss writes that for biomass energy to be carbon neutral “the forest growth rate has to be greater than or equal to the harvest rate.” In other words, so long as forests continue to adequately grow and sequester carbon, logging for bioenergy adds no additional carbon into the atmosphere.

Letter co-author William R. Moomaw, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus and Co-Director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, said that Strauss’ definition of carbon neutral biomass is “far too simplistic.”

Moomaw agrees that other trees will take in the CO2 released by logging a tree for bioenergy, however he makes the point that these trees are also absorbing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

“The proper way to do carbon accounting,” Moomaw said, “is to add up all of the emissions, and then all of the removals into sinks.”

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[EXCLUSIVE] Is Biomass Heating Safe for Schools?

– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor

Four school districts in western Massachusetts plan to switch out existing oil or propane heating systems for wood pellets, despite red flags raised by public health advocates.

Currently, biomass heating in New England is more economical than propane, slightly more expensive than fuel oil # 2, and several times more costly than natural gas.

As of May, the average cost of propane per million BTU in New Hampshire is $28.32 ($2.59/gallon), with wood pellets at $15.65 ($258/ton), fuel oil #2 at $13.95 ($1.93/gallon), and natural gas at $8.62 ($.86/therm), according to the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

The Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs doesn’t publish BTU calculations, however rates for propane are slightly higher than in New Hampshire ($2.75/gallon), nearly the same for wood pellets ($260/ton), and fuel oil a bit higher ($2.18/gallon), with the biggest difference being natural gas, at one-third the cost ($.25/therm).

To help defray the expense of “renewable thermal heating and cooling upgrades,” the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) offers Schools and Public Housing Integrating Renewables and Efficiency (SAPHIRE) grants.

This year, the Sanderson Academy Elementary School in Ashfield received a $171,598 SAPHIRE grant to replace its oil heating system with wood pellets. Last year, the Hawlemont Elementary School in Charlemont and Heath Elementary School received a total of $355,375 to switch to wood pellets.

Other recipients of SAPHIRE grants for switching from oil to biomass heating include the Mount Everett Regional High School and Undermountain Elementary in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, Overlook Middle School in the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District, Petersham Central Elementary School in the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District, and the Berlin Memorial Elementary School in the Berlin-Boylston Regional School District.

But economics isn’t the only topic relevant to biomass heating at schools. The American Lung Association, the Buckland County Board of Health, and local advocates are worried about schoolchildren’s exposure to air pollution from wood heating systems.

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[EXCLUSIVE] Is Biomass Energy Renewable? New Report Says No

– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor

A new law review article questions whether biomass should count as renewable energy, arguing that carbon dioxide and air pollutant emissions disqualify the controversial energy source.

Wood Burning, Biomass, Air Pollution, and Climate Change, by Christopher D. Ahlers, Adjunct Professor of Law at Vermont Law School, explains that the term renewable is a “subjective policy judgment” that must take into account the health and environmental impacts of a given energy source.

Currently, biomass energy makes up 50 percent of renewable energy in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, with half of that tally coming from wood products.

Ahlers, legal support for the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, contrasts biomass energy from solar and wind, and instead compares bioenergy to fossil fuels, as “both involve the extraction of solid material from the earth, for the purpose of combustion.” He also discusses the time difference between growing a new tree (decades to centuries) and the formation of new fossil fuel deposits (millennia).

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Biomass Energy Growing Pains

– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor

Eagle_Valley_captionSeveral 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 from The Biomass Monitor 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.

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