Biomass Industry Fights Transparency

– by Josh Schlossberg, March 23, 2013

I was pleased to see the VTDigger opinion piece by Bill Kropelin, chief forester for Burlington Electric Department’s McNeil biomass incinerator, in response to Energy Justice Network’s McNeil Biomass Forest Map — since a public discussion on the health and environmental impacts of industrial-scale “biomass” energy in Vermont is long overdue.

As we all know, we are at a crossroads in regards to our energy choices. No longer can we depend on climate-busting and rapidly dwindling fossil fuels or risky nuclear energy to power our lifestyles. While the first step is radical energy efficiency, conservation, and “destruction of demand” — which can only be truly accomplished by adapting our ways of life to what the planet can sustain — it’s clearly time for appropriately sited and scaled, genuinely clean, renewable energy.

However, not all renewable energy is created equal. While every form of “alternative” energy — from solar to wind to hydro to geothermal — has impacts on the environment and human health, by far the most harmful of these options is industrial-scale biomass incineration. Whether it’s a good idea or not, it may be inevitable that more trees will be burned in the Northeast to heat our homes through our long cold winters (which, thanks to climate change, are actually getting warmer and shorter). But Vermonters are starting to understand the folly of burning our precious forests for a highly inefficient, polluting, and obsolete method of electricity generation.

Vermont already has two large biomass power incinerators, McNeil Generating Station in Burlington and Ryegate Power Station in Caledonia County (not counting several smaller combined heat and power facilities and wood heating plants, and tens of thousands of outdoor wood boilers and wood stoves). Despite already consuming 650,000 tons of wood per year to fuel these two massive incinerators alone, which operate at 25 percent efficiency — effectively wasting three out of four trees — there are two other large biomass power incinerators proposed for Fair Haven (west of Rutland) and Springfield which would consume another 870,000 tons — totaling 1.52 million tons of wood per year, the rough equivalent of 13,000 acres of annual clearcuts.

The latest science has demonstrated that biomass power plants emit higher levels of asthma-causing particulate matter and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds per unit of energy produced than a typical coal plant — debunking biomass industry claims of “clean” energy. Science has also concluded that biomass incinerators emit more climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from the smokestack per unit of energy produced than a typical coal plant (with some studies citing a “permanent” increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide) — taking care of the “green” claims as well.

While Kropelin implies that the McNeil Biomass Forest Map somehow exaggerates the logging for McNeil, the acreage shown on the map is actually only the tip of the (melting) iceberg, since estimates of anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of McNeil’s wood is logged in New York state.

Which brings us to Vermont’s iconic forests, the focus of Energy Justice Network’s McNeil Biomass Forest Map. Aside from acting as a natural climate buffer, forests produce clean air and filter pure water, create fertile topsoil, prevent flooding and erosion, and provide recreation and tourism dollars. Numerous reports predict a massive uptick in forest degradation from the rush to mine trees for biomass power.

While Kropelin implies that the McNeil Biomass Forest Map somehow exaggerates the logging for McNeil, the acreage shown on the map is actually only the tip of the (melting) iceberg, since estimates of anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of McNeil’s wood is logged in New York state. Further, the map only includes 2010 logging sources in Vermont for McNeil, and doesn’t include logging for the Ryegate Power Station, out-of-state biomass incinerators, smaller biomass facilities or home heating.

The McNeil Biomass Forest Map will only depict the true forest footprint of an industrial scale biomass energy facility once at least 10 years of the mapping is complete and we are able to access maps for New York state — which have thus far has been denied to us.

The biomass industry insists any opposition to an expansion of biomass energy is alarmist. Meanwhile, the only objective evidence we have is to measure the current forest impact from existing biomass incinerators and extrapolate from that. You’d think that the biomass industry, in order to prove how “sustainable” their practices are, would already be making this information publicly available. Yet, not only isn’t industry taking these steps towards transparency, they are speaking out against objective forest monitoring efforts like the McNeil Biomass Forest Map.

Does that make you feel any more confident about the biomass industry’s plans for the Green Mountain State?

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