The Problem with Biomass, Part 1

By James Kwak

Did you know that my wife is a “high-paid consultant” for the shadowy anti-biomass movement? Neither did I — and I’m the one who handles all of our finances, so I should know.

Last night she testified at a hearing held by the Springfield City Council, which is considering revoking the permit of Palmer Renewable Energy (PRE) to build a biomass plant in Springfield. PRE was granted a special zoning permit to build the plant in 2008. Since then, PRE has increased the amount of fuel it intends to burn (meaning, among other things, that more diesel trucks will have to drive in and out to deliver the material) and changed the type of fuel from construction and demolition debris to “green wood chips” (which matters because the plant was initially permitted as a recycling facility).*

My wife, a professor of environmental economics and econometrics, testified about the link between emissions (from power plants and diesel trucks) and illness, particularly asthma. At the hearing, one of PRE’s witnesses claimed not to know where my wife was “getting” the idea that air pollution can cause asthma. (In a newspaper article, PRE had this to say about asthma: “Valberg said there are many theories on the causes of asthma, and that indoor air quality in homes and schools is actually more of concern than outdoor air. For opponents to state that the project will worsen asthma rates ‘is just not scientifically accurate,’ Valberg said.”)

Well. Many, many studies have linked outdoor air pollution to asthma incidence or morbidity (Mortimer 2002, McConnell 2006Ho 2007, Islam 2007Loyo-Berrios 2007, Halonen 2008O’Connor 2008 (summary here); Islam 2008 reviews studies of traffic-related asthma; Patel 2009 reviews studies of childhood asthma) and to bad cardiopulmonary health in general (Samet 2000Pope 2002, Vedal 2003). I could come up with lots more citations, but you get the point.

According to the local paper, PRE’s witnesses included “Dale T. Raczynski of Epsilon Associates Inc. of Maynard; and Peter A. Valberg, of Gradient.” These are both “environmental consulting” firms. In case you don’t know what an environmental consulting firm does, this is from Epsilon’s website: “Epsilon is the ‘go to’ firm for complex and highly visible projects in New England and beyond. Epsilon has successfully gained approvals and permits for many of the largest and most complex projects in the region. . . . Epsilon provides effective client advocacy founded on long established credibility with the regulatory community.”

Recently, the biomass developers have been arguing that they are the victims of a high-paid, high-powered, shadowy network of environmental activists. See for example this Springfield Republican article that largely repackages PRE’s talking points; its lead is “The developers of a proposed 35-megawatt wood-burning plant in East Springfield say the opposition to their project is well-organized, determined and well-funded.” (The Biomass Power Association blames a “small, vocal, extreme minority.”)

Well, I can tell you that my wife drove down to Springfield after work, spent four hours at the meeting, came home late at night, missed dinner, and didn’t get paid a cent.

* There is a legal issue about the standard necessary to justify revoking a permit that has already been granted, but that’s not relevant for this blog post.

22 thoughts on “The Problem with Biomass, Part 1

  1. It seems your wife is a lover of big government, then, and therefore branding her as a extreme-left zealot is just a natural consequence of letting the market sift through all these ideas. Heaven forbid there be any vetting of these wild and elliptical statements of libel.

    As an economist, you might find this upsetting. For the principal dogma is that the free market finds its own proper balance. I, however, have to argue that when the referees are removed, thuggery, distortion, and innuendo carry the field. A great case for why government oversight is essential in another aspect of modern life. Somewhere between the nanny state and laissez-faire there might exist a reasonable balance.

    How long will it be before the majority wakes up to the fact that small government is code for letting fraud and lies go unchallenged? Will this never happen with the reduction of public education funding? Will logic and reason be a sad casualty of the crusade against big government?

    The solution is, of course, to move far, far away and live in a gated community with a private police force, and private medical care, and limos, and private jets, and large yachts. This is how the important people will show their compassion (they will leave).

  2. So, James Kwak and Jeff Simpson, have you both signed on to the Move to Amend?

    Are you both planning to attend the Democracy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin to be held from August 24-28, 2011?

    Has either of you any better ideas for us on how to reverse this seemingly inexorable slide into corporate fascism? Heavens, we are practically there.

  3. I find that interesting, because it is a reflection of the standard right-wing playbook:

    “A small, vocal, extreme minority.”

    Step 1: Find an issue and determine your talking points.
    Step 2: Promote your stance on right-wing blogs and talk radio.
    Step 3: Get 15 – 20% of the population on your side.
    Step 4: Get the story picked up by Fox because now it’s a big enough story to be “legitimate.”
    Step 5: A few days later, wonder why the “mainstream media” isn’t talking about it. Now you’ve got TWO stories.
    Step 6: Fund or find a poorly worded poll that somehow distorts things to show that a “majority” of Americans support the caues.
    Step 7: Thrash the media and the White House for ignoring the “majority.”

    Now you win either way. If they respond, the issue is legitimized because in general media will never question whether a “majority” is really a “minority.” It’s better then to “teach the controversy” and engage in he said / she said. If the other side does not respond, you use the story to fire up your base and get then to support candidates as well as the cause, for free.

    I cannot blame them for assuming that is how the other side operates as well.

  4. Gotta keep an eye on your wife!

    They know more than you do.


    Thanks for enlightening us.

    As if there is any energy thuggery to which these types will not stoop.


    Welcome to Pottersville 2

  5. I’m not all that familiar with the issues of waste biomatter as fuel (and from what I’ve read, that is what this plant would be burning). Two or three things come immediately to mind:

    1. Although this is anecdotal, I can say safely that air pollutants certainly aggravate conditions for existing asthma sufferers. I’m one of them. On bad air quality days, I have the _only_ asthma symptoms (in New York) that I’ve had in many years (those other years spent outside NYC).

    2. The evidence in the New York area is overwhelming. The Bronx has the highest incidence of childhood asthma in NYC and also has the worst air quality. The Bronx also has the highest rate of emergency room admissions for breathing problems. By contrast, it has lung cancer rates that are comparable with other counties across the state (so it’s unlikely that the Bronx has higher smoking rates). This info is readily available via New York State websites.

    3. I suppose that the planned plant found that it would have insufficient quantities of fuel if it used whatever it was initially proposing (if it proposed anything specific), or it found that the originally-planned fuel would be too expensive. The obvious question is: How efficient will biomass be as a fuel source?

    Biological material burned will burn incompletely. The products of incomplete combustion include obvious things like soot, but also PAHs — polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogens.

    Furthermore, if indeed the plant will be taking waste bio-matter that must be disposed of somehow, and _if_ the material is truly “green” (that is, not hazardous), then why not compost it? Emissions would be far more friendly.

    I don’t know how they can claim to be in any way “green” or “earth friendly” with a combustion process, unless they have an extraordinarily efficient technology.

  6. Another thought: If the proposed plant is serving as a destination for waste material, there probably a very-poorly-accounted-for cost associated with collecting and delivering comparatively small quantities from a comparatively large number of widely distributed sources. The net energy efficiency could be very small.

  7. Florida is a mess…and the air is terrible because of biomass burnings, period! Scrubbers don’t work with no oversight, and are totally energy inefficient – reminds me of ethanol where the trade-offs are ludicrous.

    This is bi-product on the sly to feed local industry at the expense of consumers health and money (taxes). Ref: **Monsanto** & *Solutia -00-

    Thankyou James and Simon

  8. Hey James,
    Have you or your wife done any reading about what happened out in Bell California with the city council corruption???
    I think you and your wife might find it highly interesting as to how it indirectly relates to your frustration on this particular issue. I would suggest that there maybe some strong behind closed doors/under the table relationships between Springfield City Council (or one or two easily pliable members of the council to tip a majority vote) and your friends at PRE. The Bell story was uncovered by some great journalism (yes, great journalism still exists in obscure crevices) at the Los Angeles Times. If you know of any journalists at Boston Globe, or some especially industrious news bloodhounds at a Springfield area newspaper, you might give a phone call and suggest (quasi-recruit) them to hunt down leads (money-flows) connecting PRE and the Springfield City Council and any individual members thereof. You might ask some journalists or the general citizenry if any financial audits of the Springfield City Council have been done recently and comb the details of the audit and go about initiating a city audit if there hasn’t been.

    I would strongly suggest you might find the above actions highly helpful in your little battle. Good luck to you and your compassionate wife.

  9. Sounds like wood-burning would be a more precise description than bio-mass, which in my opinion refers exclusively to agricultural by-products whose decay (i.e. they are not burned) produces methane.

    Wood can be cleaned up but as Earle notes the scrubbers must be maintained.

    As a former resident of the Happy Valley and a keen observer of Dr. Seuss’ birthplace I wish you well.

  10. QUESTION: What’s the purpose of this biomass burning plant anyway? An incinerator? Electric generation? Boiler fuel? Curiosity, perhaps. But I am curious. No doubt the economic collapse dried up the supply of construction debris, so they shopped for a different fuel source and came up with some wood chip supplier(s). Or is this some green project which thrives on Fed. and stategrants and subsidies, not production.

  11. James, welcome to the wonderful world of development politics where facts are not important to council members who see $ signs from development, any development. The only thing that gets their attention is a large public outcry. If you can muster it, then reason will win out. If you can’t, then as usual $ do.

  12. James…as a follow up, I’d like to mention the applicable environmental carbon credit, via the “Clean Air Act”.
    Ref: “Enviromutal Biology EcoSystems” – Inorganic[?]

    Ref: “Towards a sustainable Economy – a knol, by Sam Carano ([2/28/11] *Google}

    Lastly the big three: BioMass/&/Agrichar/&/Biochar under the tent of Pre-FIRE[?] – “Bioenergy and the BioRefinery Concept via Pyrolysis”
    Thanks James

  13. “Green wood chips” sounds like recently killed trees, so it appears this plant would be both adding to greenhouse gas emissions and destroying essential air cleansers. Surely Springfield does not want to be guilty of contributing to deforestation.

  14. If not Biomass, then what? Coal? Nuclear? Shale gas?

    I don’t know all the facts in this case, but in general biomass from non-food sources is more sustainable and less GHG-emitting than any fossil-fuel alternative.

    Unless the opponents are suggesting that we forgo the use of electricity, then it’s reasonable to expect them to suggest some alternatives, and consider the negative impacts.

  15. @ Stephen: And: The only thing that gets their attention is a large public outcry. If you can muster it, then reason will win out. If you can’t, then as usual $ do.

    Anyone can act on behalf of a clown and be handsomely paid for it, so enless you are the clown, you will have to play by your own rules. And even I can see a bad line or 2 in your play.

  16. Thanks for writing this. I’m another of those high–paid consultants– well, actually, a low-income rights organizer in Springfield. Two years ago, I never could have guessed we’d be tackling an issue like biomass– stumbled onto it rather accidentally, in fact. It was only when I understood the impact that a new incinerator (we already have Bondi’s island) would have on a community where one in four children has asthma that I was moved to act. Since then, I’ve found many more reasons to oppose biomass, from climate change (sorry, MORE GHG from bio than coal), deforestation and the sheer waste of our resources in a time of scarcity.

    I was at the Springfield City Council hearing, also, and heard the ludicrous claims of PRE’s air quality consultant. As my friend Patti commented, “On a bad air day, you never hear the EPA say, “Run! Get out of the house!'”– not to say that indoor air quality is unimportant: there’s a middle school in Springfield saturated with mold, and the asthma in that neighborhood even higher than the 25% citywide.

    If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then federal and state policies made a good start down that road before beginning to realize it was the wrong way forward. Recent state regulations intend to limit Renewable Energy Credits to biomass plants that can reach 40% efficiency for a half credit) and 60% for a whole credit. None of the three biomass plants proposed fort Western Mass can attain that level– PRE’s efficiency will run at best somewhere between 25% and 30% depending on whose figures you believe.

    if only decisions were made on the basis of scientific information! At this point, however, politics and money play the bigger part in the decision our city council will make on Monday, when it actually takes a vote on PRE’s permit. At least those dynamics are ones community organizers understand.

    Wish us luck and thank your wife for her part in making our case. I’ll be in touch.

  17. @michaelann

    Probably one of the easier aspects of local politics that can be restored to be in service to the people is the participation of *scientists*, engineers, and many other educated *craftspeople* :-) who know how to produce the greatest good for the greatest number…

    In a way, people were “drafted” into local service by their neighbors for a long time up to the hippie era and then the chain was broken – meaning the doc down the street knew his engineer patient had the skills needed at a particular point in time where, for instance, a sewer project was in progress in the town, and there was no big yaddayadda with campaigning or anything else, if the engineer accepted the opportunity to be of service, s/he got elected. Simple. Some towns still have a retired engineers association offering *free* expert advice to anyone who needs it in town.

    When you get right down to it, the two classes of *vocation* (hate to use such a noble word) that are the WORST for a true functioning democracy (elected councils) are professional politicians and corrupt accountants who bully their way into local government.

    As pointed out numerous times, banks don’t have a clear purpose statement for their continued existence (TBTF???!!!) other than to pretend all reality must bend to their will – debt as profit for them. It’s nuts.

    So we need to start *drafting* talent to serve their local community based on what the community is spending most of its public monies on in the way of public infrastructure (energy delivery, transportation, housing, water supplies, sanitation, etc etc etc).

    In other words – get in there and fight to get REAL people in your local government. You should COUNT on how many people will rise up to do the right things again! Especially now that TV is so bad – LOL.

  18. It’s all well and good to comment about an issue that needs the attention of citizens. It’s even more important to ACTUALLY DO something significant that will allow necessary changes to be made to improve our country.

    Here is a link that will interest many of you.

  19. I’ve been researching the relationship between sociopathy and capitalism for the last couple of days and when I read the article and the comments here, I was struck by how well the position of PRE aligns with what a sociopath would do. Do a search on Robert Hare, who came up with the PCL checklist for psychopathy – you may well be quite surprised to see how well that list describes the sins coporate America visits on all of us peons. What will really surprise you when you start reading about psychopathy/sociopathy is how what we think of when we think of psychopaths (Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Daumer, etc.) are not at all common – the garden variety psychopath (very common in law, business, and politics) is much more to be feared than the violent (and uncommon) ones are.

  20. “So we need to start *drafting* talent to serve their local community ” To be fair and balanced, some communities suck.

    “*scientists*, engineers, and many other educated *craftspeople* :-) who know how to produce the greatest good for the greatest number” Modern science existence rests on an abundant supply of fossil fuels. It seems to me that our level of technological development won’t be sustainable without them. Currently, technically trained professionals are unable to get humans to make major strides towards transitioning to alternative energy sources because the huge changes to lifestyle and geography are required. Most countries in the world depend on fossil fuels for energy.

    “banks don’t have a clear purpose statement for their continued existence” Unfortunately, they are allowed to iexist because they supply capital to the capitalist system. Capitalism is not just about free market competition, it’s also about capital accumulation. Left alone, a capitalist system will concentrate capital into fewer hands until diminishing returns become apparent.

    “I’ve been researching the relationship between sociopathy and capitalism” What’s your point? It should be apparent that capitalism is a less physical alternative to competition in the natural world for resources. Right now, in developed countries, the ill-effects of sociopaths in prominent positions are benign compared to what their effect could be in a few decades, as fossil fuel supplies dwindle. They will start to use violence to hold on to their status as they have done historically. It’s in situations of scarcity ( third world countries or inner-city poverty, for you upper middle class folks) where sociopaths can cause the most suffering.

    “more to be feared than the violent (and uncommon) ones are.” I think they that they may be more common than you think. I think the violent ones are involved in socially acceptable outlets for violent behavior, such as the military or sports, if they’re not in prison or dead. Situations of prosperity or abundance put them at a distinct disadvantage because violent aggression is frowned upon. In a period of scarcity, a sociopath would be more adept in securing resources and maybe even passing on his genes.

  21. I appreciate your comments, A Real Black Person. I don’t agree with you that “the ill-effects of sociopaths in prominent positions are benign compared to what their effect …”, though. I DO agree with you that sociopaths are more common than I thought, though. But not all sociopaths are violent – far from it. Yes, the violent ones have socially acceptable outlets for their behavior, such as the military or sports, but what do they do when they retire? Do leopards change their spots? The relationship between capitalism and sociopathy is this: capitalism, which, as you say, “will concentrate capital into fewer hands until diminishing returns become apparent”, is a system designed for sociopaths to flourish. Case is point: the banksters. I don’t think we disagree on much, if anything, A Real Black Person. I wish that more people would start looking at the similarities between sociopaths and the elite in this country and around the world.

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