The Premature Promise of Renewables

Add biomass energy to the list of renewables that, no matter how high our hopes for them, are not all they’re cracked up to be. Add burning plants and wood chips to the list of unconventional fuel sources that are not all that “green” yet cost a bunch of green.

I’m sure the coal haters have already stopped reading, but for those renewable-energy fans who are still with me, maybe I can keep you reading. I’m all for renewables. We need more energy, so if wind or sun or algae or wood chips can help us produce more power, fantastic. But if the politically-motivated rush toward unconventional fuels (i.e. non-fossil fuels) makes us pick these fuels before they’re technologically and/or economically ripe, then count me out. If we have to prop up a fuel with taxpayer-funded subsidies, then adding more of that fuel to our energy portfolio will inevitably do more harm than good (economically, no doubt, but potentially even environmentally).

But back to biomass. A story in today’s Wall Street Journal has the skinny:

Hampered by extremely-high costs and burdensome government regulations, biomass plants are shutting down:

Here at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, officials in 2007 built a $7.7 million biomass plant to meet all the power needs of the medium-security prison. But last month, two years after the plant opened, prison officials closed it, citing excessive costs. …Across the U.S., other biomass projects have met similar fates. In Loyalton, Calif., Sierra Pacific Industries Inc. on Aug. 20 announced it would close a 16-megawatt plant, citing federal logging restrictions that made it more difficult to get wood from surrounding forests. In Gunnison, Colo., Western State College of Colorado in July shelved plans to install a biomass boiler on its campus amid high costs for supply and operation. And in Snowflake, Ariz., a local utility, the Salt River Project, canceled a long-term power-buying contract with a 24-megawatt plant after the plant’s operator filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July. Another operator has since taken over the facility.

At the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, meanwhile, officials hoped the biomass plant they built with help from a federal grant would eventually wipe out their $40,000-a-month power bill and even allow them to profit by selling excess power. Situated at the base of the Sierras, they counted on downed trees and other wood debris from the nearby Lake Tahoe Basin to help power the one-megawatt plant. But wood turned out to be harder to get than the prison had anticipated, because of the regulatory bureaucracy at Lake Tahoe, says Damon Haycock, the prison’s business manager. Local officials also demanded that the plant install a ‘baghouse,’ or extra filtration system, to meet clean-air standards far more rigorous than the federal government’s, which raised costs and reduced efficiency, Mr. Mohlenkamp says. The plant began losing $500,000 a year, leading officials to close it.

Biomass energy isn’t all that “green:”

…threatening the industry’s growth are concerns that biomass power isn’t as ‘green as supporters say it is. Backers say biomass power is a carbon-neutral form of energy: The trees that feed biomass plants sequester carbon when they are growing, offsetting the carbon that’s released when they are burned for fuel. But some environmental groups have complained that biomass plants spew too much pollution into the air, while others worry that an expansion of biomass energy could lead to excessive logging, claims the industry denies. Partly driven by those concerns, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources on Sept. 17 proposed a rule requiring that biomass incinerators become 60% more efficient to qualify as a renewable resource. If adopted, industry executives say, the rule could cripple biomass production in Massachusetts and spread to other states.

My favorite part of the article is a quotation that you will always find (in some form) in these articles from rentseeking advocates of more renewable energy:

‘As long as the biomass industry is forced to compete with coal and natural gas, we will not grow this industry,’ says Bob Cleaves, chief executive officer of the Biomass Power Association, a trade group based in Portland, Maine.

Forced to compete? Sounds dreadful. Surely we don’t expect them to do this. Seems like just sticking out their hands should suffice. I mean, it’s worked to this point.

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  1. Joe says:

    Shouldn’t renewables be green? Shouldn’t green be organic?

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