The Problem with Biomass, Part 2

By James Kwak

I’ve already introduced you to the Springfield biomass plant proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy (PRE). The issue in that post was PRE’s witnesses’ apparent unfamiliarity with the voluminous evidence that ambient air pollution increases both the incidence and the severity of asthma, along with other diseases.

In addition, PRE is claiming that their biomass plant won’t increase air pollution, anyway. In this press release gracefully repackaged as a news story by the Springfield Republican, we read, “The average annual impact on emissions such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter would be minuscule, Valberg and Raczynski [PRE’s environmental consultants] said.”

Wow. Power plants have only a minuscule impact on emissions? In 2005, electricity generation was responsible for 73 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 21 percent of nitrogen oxides emissions, and 11 percent of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions. And biomass plants are less efficient, per BTU, than plants that burn coal or natural gas.

Well, maybe this power plant won’t have a lot of emissions. At least, that’s what you would think on reading the draft conditional approval granted to the plant by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. According to that report, the proposed plant will emit less than fifty tons per year of nitrogen oxides and less than 100 tons per year of carbon monoxide, making it a “non-major source” of air pollution.

But if you read that report carefully, what you find is that the estimates of future emissions come from the developer’s own application. For example, see PDF pages 17-18 on nitrogen oxides, which read like marketing literature for the “high efficiency regenerative selective catalytic reduction system” that is the centerpiece of the argument for low emissions. This is like approving new drugs without clinical trials.

What’s perhaps more disturbing is that the Springfield plant was classified as a major source (which triggers additional review under 310 C.M.R. 7.00 Appendix) after its initial application — and the introduction of new technology magically changed it into a non-major source. So the lesson is: if you don’t get it right on your first try, keep trying until you do. Because no one is checking.

26 thoughts on “The Problem with Biomass, Part 2

  1. But why be surprised that no one is checking? That’s the whole regulatory framework developed over the last 10-15 years.

  2. You may well be right that they’re blowing smoke, but in fairness to them, a “high efficiency regenerative selective catalytic reduction system”, also known as a “catalytic converter”, are a pretty well-understood technology that does drastically reduce emissions. That’s why every car/truck sold in the US has had them for the past 35 years.

    So, to complete your analogy, it’s more like approving new drugs (with acetaminophen as the only active ingredient) without clinical trials.

  3. I am neither for nor against this power plant. However, your analogy “This is like approving new drugs without clinical trials” is completely off base. As fancy (and perhaps fanciful) as “high efficiency regenerative selective catalytic reduction system” may sound to you, it is completely understandable and meaningful to a plant engineer.

    The question is whether the equipment has been tested with flue gas of similar composition to the proposed biomass plant. If the equipment has been tested and approved for this use, then it has, to use your analogy, been through Phase III trials and fully approved by the FDA for this condition. No “black box warning”.

    Your citation of U.S.-wide (2005) emissions averages – including those for legacy biomass facilities – is misleading because it is meaningless. It would be much more instructive to evaluate existing biomass facilities that use a similar feedstock and technology as the one proposed. If no similar facility is currently in operation, then the suggestions below are particularly useful.

    The applicant should be willing to provide a list of makes and models of equipment that they have qualified for the project along with vendor documentation demonstrating capability.

    Concerned citizens should insist that the actual flue gas be rigorously monitored, independently verified, and published on an ongoing and permanent basis. There should be binding penalties for non-compliance. If the company is confident in their emissions estimates, they should be willing to do this.

  4. The invisible hand is at work, right?!

    Not long ago, BP wanted everyone in the Midwest to think that it was environmentally sound to dump more stuff into the Indiana side of Lake Michigan. Indiana said yes. Other bordering states did not agree.’

    The invisible hand needs the loud voices of citizens to make it move.

  5. What if you transform biomass (municipal, industrial and agricultural residues, many of them highly contaminant) in methane via anaerobic fermentation?

    Methane can be used to generate electricity and heat. On the way you reduce contamination and obtain a fertilizer. And avoid the release of some methane.

    The question is how to use biomass.

  6. James Kwak: “In this press release gracefully repackaged as a news story”

    It’s phrases like that, is why James Kwak is my favorite blogger on planet Earth. Sometimes just stating 100% truth is the biggest “zinger” you can shoot at someone. Andrew Sullivan and Mike Konczal scrape at James’ heels sometimes, but when he’s not busy with Law or family things, James is still the best in my book.

    Well unless you can get a major city newspaper involved there went my “brilliant” idea to get a newspaper bloodhound sniffing out the Springfield city council. You know James, Rachel Maddow I think is a born and bred Massachusetts girl, and this seems up her alley after she beat the BP story to death. Why not give Rachel Maddow an e-mail or a phone call??? You might be surprised how much of an interest she might take in this story. You got nothing to lose for the phone call…..

  7. Mr. Kwak:

    Get the business right before the science.

    Environmental product shortages are caused by price controls that result from an accounting error of omission. The Random House College Dictionary defines cost as the price paid to produce, acquire, and/or maintain an asset. Missing in the definition is the cost of the price paid to remove the asset from societal use. For the purpose of illustration, the US generates a little more than 246 million tons per year that is transferred to a landfill (50%); recycle facility (25%), or incinerator (25%). If the incineration tipping fee of $65 per ton is used as a simple proxy for the cost to remove an asset from societal use is compared to the $35 per ton for landfill and recycling fees that represent a staged asset removal, a freeriding problem is created that is in excess of $5.4 billion.

    Freeriding in the form of an incomplete tipping fee reduces the incentive to produce commercially viable solid waste removal solutions. Subsidies encourage the non-commercially viable products such as ethanol plants and over-engineered qualitative surpluses such as trash-to-energy generators. While these projects may be self-sustainable in that they cover their variable margin, they often are not commercially viable as they cannot cover a market rate cost of capital.

  8. @james – “The issue in that post was PRE’s witnesses’ apparent unfamiliarity with the voluminous evidence that ambient air pollution increases both the incidence and the severity of asthma, along with other diseases.”

    Oh, “they” know. Here’s their *idea* to address the problem:

    “SEEK, a leading UK privately-owned drug-discovery group and Pernix(TM) Therapeutics Holdings, Inc. (NYSE Amex: PTX), a specialty pharmaceutical company primarily focused on the pediatric market, today announced that they have engaged J.P.Morgan to auction the theobromine assets of the joint venture. The auction will be for the global commercialisation rights (excluding Korea) of theobromine. The decision to conduct an auction is based on the interest shown within the pharmaceutical industry for theobromine (BC1036), an antitussive drug candidate in late-stage development that addresses the significant need for a non-opioid, non-codeine treatment for persistent cough.”

    JP Morgan hosts a yearly conference for the clinical trials biz – always innovative thinking and *suggestions* for how to do it cheaper. A couple of years ago the *suggestion* was that you do not have to collect every “adverse event”, just pick out the ones you think might have something to do with your therapy.

    Deutsche Bank is heavy into Genomes – go figure…

    War lords and drug lords…

  9. 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.

  10. @Eaglemount: I am very, very interested in actually DOING something about the problems we face and have been actively working to promote full public funding of political campaigns (sometimes called Voter-Owned Elections). Given that, I immediately clicked on the link you provided.

    The proposal for a Constitutional Amendment requiring public funding of election campaigns and getting corporations out of the process is okay (I’ve seen stronger ones) but what the heck is this:

    “We need 200 signatures.”

    We need 200 signatures to DO WHAT? To get arrested? Unfortunately, this looks to me like a typical MoveOn do-nothing-and-feel-good-about-it vehicle. MoveOn is just another PAC and as such, is part of the problem.

    Tell me I’m wrong. And please tell my why I’m wrong.

    200 signatures???

    Go to There you can sign a stronger petition that ALREADY has more than 110,000 signatures.

  11. Perhaps, another way to fight this biomass plant is to ask where did this “garbage” come from? If it is being trucked in from “afar” Springfield could tell the towns and cities that created the waste to take responsibility for their own “garbage” and not dump it on Springfield.

  12. May 22, 2011 Op-Ed … Cons (Elizabeth Lederman) and Pros (David Callahan) by MassLive

    PS. Springfield is perhaps the most corrupt city in Massachsetts that looks and smells like a “town south of the border” (just take a gander at Pittsfield, Mass. – GE’s old stomping ground where a particular power plant was deliberately built over their “Toxic Dumps”!). JMHO

    Penny wise politicians…dollar foolish leadership!!!

  13. It would help to know what – exactly – is the “biomass” they’re trying to get rid off…microbes are the way it is done in nature…you’ve all read the gut bacteria Times article that begins with:

    Consider this: of the trillions upon trillions of cells in the human body, only about 1 in 10 is actually human. The rest belong to microbes, which colonize every inch of you, from the inside of your mouth to the skin between your toes. It’s no wonder, then, that research is increasingly finding that the diversity of these microbes has important effects on health.

    Consider this: of the trillions upon trillions of cells in the human body, only about 1 in 10 is actually human. The rest belong to microbes, which colonize every inch of you, from the inside of your mouth to the skin between your toes. It’s no wonder, then, that research is increasingly finding that the diversity of these microbes has important effects on health.

    Read more:

  14. Has anyone, anywhere, ever notice a 300 foot smokestack spewing out clean waste? I doubt it. They fire up these abominations only at night for good reason…the putrid stench that rains down miles away softly caresses the morning spring rains or frost as it subtly blankets the valleys and hilltops. A gifted ubiquitous “Trojan Horse” indeed…an ominous tasteless concoction of toxic poisons from industrial progress toasting your health?
    It is the acquiescence of the maddening placid crowd that gets my dandruff up! A failed attempt at public discourse that has become the norm of america today questioning not authority?
    This is a pure unadulterated defamation of “comme`il`faut ergoism”, taking the public “Lemming to the Sea”! A classic “Bait and Switch” with all eye’s wide open. Shame!
    Thankyou James

  15. And the kingpin of energy has long since been spewing its contanaments of waste, and is only now showing signs of weakness. That would be coal, and in China and India there is a significant shortage of coal, from old mines closing and newer ones being more laborous to bring to market, too weather related issues. The industry in China has used up its people and many water sources over the past 60 years, and now not only has to address the health issues but the environmental ones also. This at a time when industrial China needs power more than ever, it finds many sectors on the verge of shutdown from the lack of coal, and the future needs of coal only increseing,(despite the calls for green energy). Price inflation and shortages could lead to a major slowdown in China which could be felt round the world. There is no question, long live the king.

  16. @ Owen Owens

    Ref: “Pipeline-Istan: Everything you Need to Know About Oil, Gas, China, Iran, Afghanistan, and Obama” – by Pepe Escobar (5-13-09/ posted & printed/ 1-1-10)

    The Black and Blue Gold Rush: “Turkmenistan”

    Ref: Dimension of the Pakistan conflict @ WashingtonPost Commentary (5/21/09) ___Baluchistan & NWFP[?] /Pakistan

    Ref: “Russia, China, Iran, redraw energy map” – by M.K. Bhadrakumar___ (1/8/10 – update)

    “Turkmen Gas – Export Strategy and Trans-Caspian Opportunities – Part 1 — by Mark Rowley & Blake Botts (3/9/09)
    “The Great Uncertainty: Russia – Central Asian Energy Relations” by VladimirMilov, Martha Brill Olcott (6/13/07)
    “Why Iran wants Russia in OPEC”, by Meir Javedanfar (3/23/09)
    “Buku tests gas pipeline to Iran”, by (1/20/10)
    Ref: “Will Azerbaijani gas exports to China scuttle the Southern Corridor”, by Alexandros Petersen (12/9-16/09)
    Ref: “Trans – Afghanistan Pipeline” (TAPI vs. IPI)
    Ref: “Operation Enduring Pipeline”, by Don Bacon (6/2/08)
    “The Great Game”…so called by the Afghanistan Indigenous People

    Note: This is old news Owen Owens, and the United States has absolutely no intentions of leaving Afghanistan. China can go the low road or the high road for their “Blue Gold” energy, for the next two centuries! Pakistan has already been dealing with China bigtime as have the Russians (economic rationale/ honor amongst thieves) with poor India caught in the middle. Thus, america “Must” get its energy policy ducks lined-up or were in a heep of trouble.
    PS. This Biomass is a speck of nonsense, period! What a shame it seems to waste so much energy on trivial garbage, when we could/ should be implementing a infrastructure for EV’s, and Natural Gas Vehicles along our highways and bi-ways! Fortunately we’ve got Canada’s “Tar-Sands, and the most advanced technology in the world for sustainable “Natural Gas Fracking. If only Obama would stop being a “Globe Trotting” President, and mind America as his “We Can”, “Can Do[?]”!
    Thanks James, and good luck to your wife tomorrow?

  17. You’re right Earle, most of this is old news. But as for energy policy ducks and order, there is a two way street to consider, one large and one small. We see only the small one and for some reason need to act on it, sometimes hastily but mostly inefficiently.

    The large scale I leave up to the future and those with bigger tools than I have access to. But the rest, as you stated, should be addressed soon for the equasion of supply and demand seems to indicate steadly rising prices. Two things I am focusing on are saftey and cost, we don’t need anymore BP spills, and the source of the energy and its use should be done as smart as possible.

    Progress is being made with EV’s and battery exchange stations, as well as mini nuclear plant to power such stations along with eventual high speed rail. This, over time, could/should even be financed by the private sector. Another creative method is being used off Australia with drill ships and then liquifiing the Nat gas to be contained and then delivered at any port in the world. Sort of a giant propane grill tank at sea supplying the same ones who are investing in tapi from the intercontinetal source of Nat gas.

    So in short, for the moment, I would not worry so much about the future and energy as I would about our aggressive military and political system. Believed to be resources and safely/easily recoverable ones are two different stories jammed into one mind.

  18. @ Owen Owens

    Indeed, the Congress has its agenda set at extending the “Patriot Act”, yet another four [4] years (note the sequence after mid-term…and mid presidential transitions?)!
    “this warm, fuzzy, Orwellian feeling has me in a maelstrom of discontent
    realizing once as if thrice is never enough
    that the enemies are within the asylum confinements
    shadowy papered over Ghost Buster’s
    shrouded in our red, white, and blues
    shamefully color blind to a setting sun”

  19. I’m with Jeffrey West. “The game is rigged”, “these cards are marked”, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. The predatorclass owns the socalled government including the socalled regulatory bodies and organizations, who DO NOT regulate, – but who turn blind eyes to wanton abuses, and accept bribery to advance predatorclass interests. The people have no influence in these malproceedings, and no say in the conduct or operations of the socalled government which is owned and controlled by the predatorclass, and predatorclass oligarchs.

    In a world where there are no laws, – there are no laws for anyone predatorclass biiiiaaatches!!!

  20. We are also having a debate over waste-to-energy in Metro Vancouver where I live.

    Our regional government wants to build a waste-to-energy facility. The reason is we truck our “garbage” to a land fill 200 miles away. But it would reduce carbon emissions if we stopped land filling and converted the “garbage” from our area into usable energy.

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