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Battle Over Biomass Halts Michigan Facility

Cadillac Biomass PlantOpponents of the Traverse City, Michigan wood-burning plant said existing facilities in the region, including this one in Cadillac, were already tapping available wood supply.  They also fought the plant on health grounds and lack of consideration of cleaner alternatives.

A public outcry against a proposed $40 million, 10-megawatt wood-burning plant in northern Michigan’s Traverse City forced the community’s municipal utility in late June to put its plans on the back burner at least temporarily.  The contest over the plant demonstrates how tricky some renewable energy sources are.

Traverse City Light and Power (TCL&P), which serves over 11,000 customers and has a goal of reaping 30% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, had promoted the biomass operation as a major part of that plan.  The utility erected one of the first large wind turbines in the state in the 1996, but derives about 99% of its generation from coal.

In May 2009, the utility had said it would build up to five biomass plants. But opponents led by the Northern Michigan Environmental Council turned out in force at public meetings this spring to condemn the wood-burning plant for several reasons, including the drain on forests in the region, air emissions, and alternatives like natural-gas fired plants.

“We did not do a good job getting the information out and getting people behind us, so we need to move on,” said Ralph Soffredine, a member of the TCL&P board.

In a statement before discontinuing active pursuit of the biomass plant, TCL&P had said it was disappointed in “misinformation” that critics were using to “distort” its plans.  “The ash generated from the process is not toxic. The forests will not be denuded. Generating clean renewable energy with local fuels has tremendous advantages over burning coal, from cost to emissions to generating local jobs and expanding our economy.”

Project opponents, however, said the demise of the planned biomass facility was the result of far more than failed marketing.  “An intelligent and informed public raised many questions that officials in Traverse City dodged or declined to answer,” said Anne Woiwode of the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter.  “One thing never answered was where the wood would come from to run the plant.”

Sierra Club and other critics said their analysis showed inadequate wood waste and standing timber to fuel the plant.  In fact, they said, biomass and biofuel plants in northern Michigan, including the eastern Upper Peninsula, also seek some of the wood counted on by TCL&P.

Some environmental groups originally praised the proposal.  A media consultant hired by TCL&P was Keith Schneider, founder of the Michigan Land Use Institute, which advocates for conservation and environmental protection. He said the Traverse City public opposition was “ugly” and a symptom of a national not-in-my-backyard response to renewable energy proposals.

“When grassroots environmental organizations oppose a right-scaled, local, state-of-the-art, clean-burning wood biomass plant their ‘win’ is no victory at all,” Schneider wrote on his Mode Shift blog. “If they succeed we all get more coal, likely from the same new plants that their major environmental organization brothers are trying to block.”

Dr. William Sammons, a Massachusetts pediatrician who has opposed biomass plants in several states, made a public presentation in Traverse City June 23 arguing biomass is dirtier than coal, not carbon neutral as claimed by researchers, and generates emissions harmful to respiratory health.

A petition to Governor Jennifer Granholm from several environmental and conservation organizations and coordinated by a local watershed organization, Friends of the Jordan River, said 13,000 tons of wood are needed to produce one megawatt of power for a year. “At a moderate harvest rate of 20 tons per acre, one small 30 MW plant would burn approximately 20,000 acres of wood each year. This is not a sustainable use of our forests,” the petition asserted.

Before TCL&P shelved the plan, former Traverse City mayor Margaret Dodd launched a petition drive to force a public vote on the project.  Dodd and local resident Jeff Gibbs of Michigan Citizens for Energy, the Economy and the Environment also led opposition.

Although a survey conducted by Northwest Michigan College before the controversy showed a 44-19% public opinion split in favor of the biomass plant, the large 37% of undecided respondents signaled potential for a tide of public opposition.

Greg Reisig, chair of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, says the group is helping coordinate vision sessions this fall “to bring the region together to create a Smart Energy Plan for the Grand Traverse area for the use of renewable energy sources.”

Photo:  M’Lynn Hartwell.