For renewables but against biomass? Sounds fishy to me…

Public energy policy discussions tend to be highly polarized between widely divergent worldviews; those that believe climate change is real and that we need aggressive state support in the grand challenge of remaking the world energy economy, versus those that think climate change and energy security are non-issues, renewable energy programs are market distortions, environmental regulations are stifling the American entrepreneurial spirit, et cetera ad nauseum.  It’s usually pretty easy to identity which camp a group is in based on a quick glance at their talking points.

That’s why it’s always interesting to come across a group in between that bucks this dichotomy.  Recently, my mother received and asked for my opinion on the following solicitation from the Citizens Action Council in my home state of Indiana:

Sunday, February 3, 2013
Support the Fight for Justice in Jasper!
Dear supporter,
For over two years, The Citizens for a Healthy Dubois County (HDC) have been in a major battle for the health, safety, integrity, and future of their community. In 2011, despite overwhelming public opposition to the project, the Jasper Utility Service Board entered into a lease agreement with Twisted Oak Corporation to convert the city’s antiquated coal-fired power plant to a biomass plant that would burn 300 tons of miscanthus grass daily near a residential neighborhood. Contrary to the “green energy” promise of biomass, the reality is a massive health risk and an economic shell game for communities.
1. The health and survival of a community depends upon clean air and clean water.
·         Biomass burning emits more particulate matter per unit of energy than burning coal, which would increase the community’s risk of asthma, heart and lung disease, and cancer. Over 40 medical doctors from the Jasper area publicly oppose this facility.
“The number of deaths per year from particulates alone will easily exceed the number employed by the plant,” said Dr. Shrader-Frechette, world-renowned University of Notre Dame scholar and professor in environmental science.
·         In addition to proposed atrazine use on the plants, growing miscanthus would mean the use of 300 annual tons of carcinogenic fertilizers. The addition of these new pollutants, linked to numerous diseases and developmental problems, would be a health disaster for the community.
2. The economic incentives for biomass are a one-way street.
·         The 30% tax incentive for biomass is based on a flawed Federal definition of “renewable energy”, and is motivation for companies to exploit small communities and their resources in a quest for profit.
·         Biomass is not economically feasible without massive taxpayer subsidies from every angle. It requires heavy use of agricultural land, burdens publicly funded infrastructure such as streets, highways, and the city water treatment system. This is the definition of socializing the risk and privatizing the profit.
3. Communities have a right to transparent and ethical local governance.
·         HDC launched a landmark “Open Door” lawsuit against the city of Jasper, alleging the city held 12-15 private meetings in a direct attempt to circumvent the public. It also alleged that the city’s actions lacked transparency in that it refused to release e-mails, notes from those and other meetings and official conversations.
Citizens of Jasper deserve better! The devastating health and economic impacts of biomass incineration are not worth the 15 mw of electricity produced, only to be sold outside of Jasper onto the grid.
Please support fellow Hoosiers in the fight for justice by making a contribution to Citizens Action Coalition. 100% of that contribution will go directly to Healthy Dubois County to aid in their legal fight against the City.

I quickly glanced it over and came to the following conclusions:

  • concerns over air pollution from a small biomass station are probably misguided in a state that houses 21 GW of mercury-spewing coal power plant capacity (28 separate facilities!)
  • likewise, getting riled up about fertilizer and pesticide use for Miscanthus cultivation is a little insane in a state synonymous with corn farming, where a full 49% of the surface was planted under high-input corn/soy rotations in 2012 (sourced here and here)
  • it’s really not clear that this project is getting a much federal support as it could be (it’s not a BCAP site, for example), so complaining about the economics screams clean-energy obstructionism

So I made the assumption that the CAC was likely a coal industry-sponsored advocacy group, not unlike the snake oil salespersons over at the Heartland Institute.  However, a few days later I followed up on it, and was very surprised to find just the opposite, that the CAC website full of progressive policy positions, including strong denunciations of coal and other fossil power sources, as well as advocacy for single-payer public healthcare!

Okay, great, but what gives?  Is this NIMBY-ism run amok?  Or Eco-Luddite-ism?  How can you stridently oppose fossil fuels, but in the same breath rail against very modest state support for a biopower project?  How can you complain about mercury from coal power, and then turn around and throw out a bunch of generic smears about a biomass technology that completely eliminates those emissions and mitigates most other forms of air pollution?*  If you’re against both of these diametrically-opposed positions, then what exactly are you for??  I’ve spent some time looking around their website, but really can’t figure it out; they seem to advocate for wind and solar, and even have a very reasonable fact sheet about biomass potential in Indiana.  But if they’re looking for a replacement for fossil fuels that comes at no extra cost and has absolutely no pollutant emissions or ecological impacts whatsoever, they’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and their search is doomed to failure.

*As Paul has mentioned previously, the relative air pollutant emissions of biomass power stations are likely dependent on the particular emission control technologies implemented for a given project.  A quick perusal of the LCA literature on the subjects finds studies suggesting particulate matter (PM) emissions from biomass electricity are anywhere from broadly similar to significantly lower than coal PM emissions (I poked around in GREET a little too, and it seems that they estimate PM emissions to be 15% lower for switchgrass gasification power than for coal); emissions of other criteria air pollutant species like SOx and NOx are typically lower for biomass, and mercury is basically non-existent.  So in general I think it’s pretty fair to say that the evidence suggests that biomass power beats coal power on air pollutant emissions, except perhaps on particulates, where the results are equivocal.  Thus it’s hard to imagine the the replacement of coal combustion with biomass gasification at this particular site is a threat to “the health and survival of a community” in this case…

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