2010 Feb. 28: MI Traverse City: Questions on Biomass

2010 Feb. 28: MI Traverse City: Questions on Biomass
Published: February 28, 2010 08:25 am         

Editorial: Questions on biomass

After thousands of words and untold hours of discussion, a few things stand out in the debate over building a biomass plant to produce about 10 megawatts of electricity for Traverse City Light and Power, which right now must, by law, have a capacity of 78 megawatts.
At top is the claim — which so far is essentially just that, a claim — that we’ll be able to feed a biomass plant the 100,000 tons of scrap wood it will consume every year (273 tons per day) without having to cut down trees and burn them.
Exactly where will all that wood — most, supposedly, left over from logging operations — come from? Who owns it? Who creates it? Can we guarantee future supply or future costs? Are we counting on logging operations in state or federal forests or on privately owned land? What happens when other planned or existing biomass plants compete for wood? What happens to wood prices (for building homes, for example)? What happens to area roads that must support 10 truckloads of wood per day to keep the plant producing? What happens 20 years from now if the choice becomes clear-cutting forests or shutting down a $30 million plant?
Further, what exactly does Light & Power plan to do with the ash a biomass plant will produce. How and where can it be safely disposed? How much will that cost? What’s in it? What kind of a health hazard does it represent? How many more trucks per day or week or month will it take to get rid of the stuff?
And what about those who live downwind? Wood-burning plants have been criticized for creating haze and smog.
Neighbors of early wood-burning plants in the region complained of soot and particulates that landed on cars and homes and could take the finish off a paint job.
What assurances do we have that plant emissions will not be a threat to human or animal health?
Light & Power has also not made the case that we need to build soon or watch the lights go out. The utility has said its contract with a Lansing-based coal-powered plant, from which the utility gets 90-plus percent of its power, expires this year. That’s true. But it’s also true Light & Power can extend that contract if it wants to.
The aging dams on the Boardman River have also been given short shrift. Those with agendas other than producing renewable power dominated the decision-making process when local governments decided last year to tear out the dams.
Could a $30 million investment — what we’re willing to pay for 10 megawatts of wood power — make the dams viable again? We need details.
Residents must be very concerned that the proposed infusion of $15 million in federal stimulus money for the plant will overwhelm other concerns.
And is the laudable 30-by-20 goal reasonable? The state has asked that 10 percent of all power come from renewable sources by 2020. Light & Power has said it wants to triple that amount. That’s great, but what makes anyone think we have the resources to do that? Does that mean building three biomass plants?
Continuing to depend on coal-fired plants like the one in Lansing is bad for the environment and a dead-end solution to energy needs. But we must not return to 1800s technology simply because it’s the easy and trendy solution.
Imagine what that will mean in 25 years, after we’ve burned 2.5 million tons of wood and sent all that soot into the air and ash into landfills.
Does Traverse City really want a wood-burning power plant a mile or so from East Bay? The answer, at least until a lot of questions are answered and issues resolved, must be no.
We cannot settle for a technology that will become an albatross around our necks within a few years, no matter how noble the short-term goal.

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