By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
While solar and wind energy gets much of the attention in renewable energy debates, various states are also leaning more and more on burning biomass and waste to reach renewable energy targets and mandates. As is the case with all sources of energy, these so-called “renewable energy” projects present a unique set of environmental and socioeconomic justice issues, as well as environmental costs and benefits. In an effort to document the geography of these active and proposed future projects, this article offers some analysis and a new map of waste and woody biomass-to-energy infrastructure across the U.S. with the maximum capacities of each facility.
To illustrate the problems of woody biomass-to-energy projects, one only needs to look at Michigan. Michigan’s growing practice of generating energy from the wood biomass relies on ten facilities that currently produce roughly 209 Megawatts (an average of 21 MW per facility) from 1.86 million tons of wood biomass (an average of 309,167 tons per facility). Based on our initial analysis this is equivalent to 71% of the wood and paper waste produced in Michigan.
Making matters worse, these ten facilities rely disproportionately on clearcutting 60-120 years old late successional northern Michigan hardwood and red pine forests. These parcels are often replanted with red pine and grown in highly managed, homogeneous 20-30 year rotations. Reliance on this type of feedstock stands in sharp contrast to many biomass-to-energy facilities nationally, which tend to utilize woody waste from urban centers. Although, to provide context to their needs, the area of forest required to service Michigan’s 1.86 million-ton demand is roughly 920 mi2. This is 1.65 times the area of Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Toronto combined.
Panorama of the Sunset Trail Road 30 Acre Biomass Clearcut, Kalkaska Conty, Michigan
Based on an analysis of 128 U.S. facilities, the typical woody biomass energy facility produces 0.01-0.58 kW, or an average of 0.13 kW per ton of woody biomass. A few examples of facilities in Michigan include Grayling Generating Station, Grayling County (36.2 MW Capacity and 400,000 TPY), Viking Energy of McBain, Missaukee County (17 MW Capacity and 225,000 TPY), and Cadillac Renewable Energy, Wexford County (34 MW Capacity and 400,000 TPY).
The relationship between wood processed and energy generated across all U.S. landfill waste-to-energy operations is represented in the figure below (note: data was log transformed to generate this relationship).
Dr. Jim Stewart at the University of the West in Rosemead, California, recently summarized the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) costs of waste landfill energy projects and a recent collaboration between the Sierra Club and International Brotherhood of Teamsters explored the dangers of privatizing waste-to-energy given that two companies, Waste Management and Republic Services/Allied Waste, are now a duopoly controlling all remaining U.S. landfill capacity (an additional Landfill Gas Fact Sheet from Energy Justice can be found here).
Their combined analysis tells us that, by harnessing and combusting landfill methane, the current inventory of ninety-three U.S. waste-to-energy facilities generate 5.3 MW of electricity per facility. Expanded exploitation of existing landfills could bring an additional 500 MW online and alleviate 21.12 million metric tons of CO2 pollution (based on reduction in fugitive methane, a potent greenhouse gas). Looking at this capacity from a different angle, approximately 0.027 MW of electricity is generated per ton of waste processed, or 1.64 MW per acre. If we assume the average American produces 4.4 pounds of waste per day, we have the potential to produce roughly 6.9 million MW of energy from our annual waste outputs, or the equivalent energy demand created by 10.28 million Americans.
The relationship between waste processed per day and energy generated across all U.S. landfill waste-to-energy operations is represented in the figure below.
Waste burning and woody biomass-to-energy “renewable energy”projects come with their own sets of problems and benefits. FracTracker saw this firsthand when visiting Kalkaska County, Michigan, this past summer. There, the forestry industry has rebounded in response to several wood biomass-to-energy projects. While these projects may provide local economic opportunity, the industry has relied disproportionately on clearcutting, such as is seen in the below photograph of a 30-acre clearcut along Sunset Trail Road:
As states diversify their energy sources away from fossil fuels and seek to increase energy efficiency per unit of economic productivity, we will likely see more and more reliance on the above practices as “bridge fuel” energy sources. However, the term “renewable” needs parameterization in order to understand the true costs and benefits of the varying energy sources it presently encompasses. The sustainability of clearcutting practices in rural areas—and the analogous waste-to-energy projects in largely urban areas—deserves further scrutiny by forest health and other environmental experts. This will require additional mapping similar to what is offered in this article, as well as land-use analysis and the quantification of how these energy generation industries enhance or degrade ecosystem services. Of equal importance will be providing a better picture of whether or not these practices actually produce sustainable and well-paid jobs, as well as their water, waste, and land-use footprints relative to fossil fuels unconventional or otherwise.