Letters From The Earth


September 8, 2011

Government confusion in waste-to-energy projects? Now there's a surprise.

By the time you read this, the wrangling and gnashing of teeth in Washington DC on the trillion dollar debt crisis will have subsided; not very satisfactorily, I might add, but at least we've moved on. However, for those of us who like to push needles into Washington politicians, I want to make sure you're aware of another crisis: "The Armageddon in Congressional Cafeterias."

In July, Democrats in the US House of Representatives tried to slip an amendment into an appropriations bill that would have prohibited any money going toward "polystyrene products for use in food service facilities in the House." We're talking about Styrofoam cups used for coffee, tea, etc. (Interesting fact: Styrofoam is recyclable if it is contaminate free; coffee residue makes it non-recyclable.) At any rate, Styrofoam products had been banned in congressional cafeterias until Republicans retook control in January and promptly lifted the prohibition. (Yes, this is how the United States Congress, the Congress elected by the people, spends its time.) Democrats took that action as an attack on the environment and on former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "Green the Capital" program. The Democrats argued that the Republicans were taking the capital back to the Stone Age.

The Republicans countered and said Pelosi's program was a waste of money. What else is new? Whether it is the debt crisis or the Styrofoam cup crisis I am convinced that earthlings are insane. No wonder we can't solve problems and make decisions. This brings me to the same kind of situation we have with WTE (waste to energy).

The above is a great way to introduce a situation that is developing in the state of Massachusetts. The trivia and inability to come to decisions in Washington point to wasteful actions and inactions that affect our businesses. The cries for moderation and mediation go unheeded. Special interest groups rule the day. An example of this is proposed regulations that affect the use of biomass as renewable energy by the administration of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. The proposal would alter whether biomass power plants in the state would qualify for renewable energy credits.

In my last column I talked about MSW (municipal solid waste) as a feed stock for WTE. I reviewed some of the new "conversion" technologies which qualify as renewable energy. I was reminded by a reader, however, that I neglected to mention "biomass" energy and the proposals that are being put forth in Massachusetts. My apologies: Biomass is an important renewable energy source and can help a state meet mandated requirements.

Biomass refers to any and all cellulosic feed stocks that are converted into energy. Biomass is considered a renewable energy. As mentioned above, it has helped many states reach mandated levels of renewable energy. That's why the prosed changes in Massachusetts are so bewildering. Here's the story.

The new rules proposed will double the requirements for a biomass energy facility's overall efficiency. Indeed, if these proposals are adopted, state support for the five existing biomass energy plans will be eliminated. Without the credits, the facilities are no longer competitive with traditional fuels such as coal and gas. With the proposed changes, biomass plants must demonstrate greenhouse gas emission reductions of at least 50 percent over 20 years. Biomass electricity plants must also operate at a minimum overall efficiency rate of 40 percent to receive a partial renewable energy credit. Existing biomass facilities operate in the range of 20 to 25 percent efficiency. The new regulations will make it almost impossible for these and new facilities to be competitive.

This is really strange, because Massachusetts has always been one of the leaders in renewable energy development, a fact forced on the state because of a lack of landfills. Governor Patrick's administration had invested $1 million in four new biomass plants in the state in an effort to achieve a mandated goal of 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Under the proposed changes it is doubtful that the four plants will be built.

Louis Brakavis, executive vice president of the Laidlaw Energy Group, says, "The regulations were established to incentivize developers to build projects that in the long run contribute significant renewable energy generation. In 2008, Massachusetts qualified biomass generation, provided over 39 percent of the required renewable generation to the state. The proposed changes deincentify (sic) and eliminate financial incentives."

When I researched the reason for the change in policy I learned that a state sponsored study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences emphasized that biomass power plants produced extremely high levels of carbon emissions, more than coal, oil, or natural gas (I wonder how much this study cost the state of Massachusetts). The study reported that large-scale biomass-fired electric facilities would result in a 3 percent increase in carbon emissions by 2050 compared with coal-fired electric plants. The study concluded that "plants" release more carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy than fossil fuels.

Talk about a debate. The conclusions by the Manomet Center are totally opposite everything I have learned and read about fossil fuel power versus WTE versus biomass to energy. Opponents of the Manomet study are firing back, saying that it missed the mark and is based on a specific set of "limited assumptions that do not tell the whole story.The conclusions that have been drawn by opponents to biomass as well as by politicians and regulators are overreaching and inaccurate." Industry analysts say, "The Manomet study failed to take into account the well known environmental damage from using fossil fuels for energy production, focusing almost solely on the levels of carbon dioxide emissions from biomass energy production." And on it goes.

The bottom line with these proposed changes is that Gov. Patrick says the state will use wind and solar projects to achieve mandated reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

I think these proposed changes, and the belief that wind and solar energy will allow for successful compliance with GHG emission levels, are totally unrealistic. I wanted to take the time to share this activity. It seems to me there's an analogy between the Styrofoam cup debate in Washington and the biomass versus coal debate in Massachusetts. Both are wasteful and spend taxpayer money. Somehow we, our industry, both suppliers and converters, must view solutions for problems such as waste with reality and moderation.

As I have said time and time again, solutions are available to eliminate the waste our industry generates. We have the opportunity to contribute to solutions that will increase renewable energy. There is no way that Massachusetts will reach the goals it has legislated without biomass and other renewable energy projects like WTE. Our industry has feed stocks that we currently throw away. These feed stocks have higher caloric value than biomass. Let's work together as an industry and make a commitment to change.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.
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