Criticism, money and doubts stall new biomass plants

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Optimistic plans for biomass plants in the state are largely on hold, leaving the expansion of a highly publicized renewable energy source up in the air.
Proposals to add to the existing seven commercial biomass plants,which use organic matter to produce energy, have faced problems ranging from public backlash to funding to concerns  about fuel supplies,  causing projects to be shelved or delayed.
Last year, a plan to build a biomass plant in Traverse City was thrown out after fierce public complaints about uncertainties regarding pollution and deforestation.
However, one plant is close to breaking ground.
The  Frontier Renewable Resources plant in Kinross Township in the Upper Peninsula, which will use wood to  produce cellulose ethanol, is expected to start construction  by mid-summer, according to Kevin Korpi who represents the plant.
Korpi, who is the executive director of the Michigan Forest Products Council, said the facility will bring jobs to the area.
“Frontier will create 70 full-time jobs, 150 construction jobs and approximately 700 indirect or spin-off jobs once the plant is fully operational.”
However, the path for other plants has been rockier.
According to Gary Melow, director of Michigan Biomass  in Ithaca, some projects have been put aside because of the unknown effects of increasing the number of biomass facilities in the state.
“We have to ask if there is enough wood to go around, what is the carbon footprint of that wood and how will it be regulated,” Melow said.
Melow said those questions mean high risk for investors.
“It presents an enormous amount of uncertainty within the marketplace where investors are hesitant to invest in biomass energy facilities because we don’t know where the questions about  biomass  are going.”
The current commercial plants are in Cadillac, Grayling, Flint, Hillman, Lincoln, McBain and L’Anse.
Melow, whose organization advocates for  six of the seven commercial plants in the state, said that increase demand for waste products to make energy has also stalled plant openings.
According to Melow, plants formerly paid only for collection and handling of material from waste-generating companies. But with new incentives for renewable energy, the waste itself has gained value, changing the economic model.
Melow said that questions remain  about whether wood waste, the state’s  most abundant source of waste matter,  would be a sustainable source of fuel in the economic model.
“We don’t know yet if it’s economically or environmentally feasible to harvest biomass materials specifically for energy,” Melow said.
Tania Howard, the Michigan Biomass Energy Program coordinator, said that because 63 percent of the state’s forest are privately owned, biomass companies don’t have unlimited access to them.
The Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth Operates the program.
Howard said that restricted access would protect forests from deforestation. .
Even with an unlimited wood supply, companies would have an interest in avoiding deforestation. “No business wants to kill their resource. Right now there is a lot of current focus on sustainable forest management,” Howard said.
Korpi said the Kinross plant will follow sustainable practices by using material that’s not being used in the marketplace today.
“We’re not taking material away from higher-value use,” Korpi said. “And we’re certainly not taking material away to sap the nutrients.”
And Howard said that while breaking ground for new plants is tough in the current economic climate, the public needs to be educated on how biomass companies work, especially in areas rich with resources.
“For biomass to remain viable, we not only have to make sure that companies have a solid business plan and financing in place, but the public outreach component has to be better,” she said.
According to Howard, biomass plants have potential and to be part of a comprehensive renewable energy plan for the state. “We need to keep moving in every direction so we have flexibility in all renewable options.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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