A small electric utility in Traverse City continues to generate a big outcry against biomass.
Light and Power officials will move forward with plans to build a wood burning plant to generate electricity and heat, but opponents say a biomass plant in Traverse City, along with other possible projects in northern Michigan, will make a huge demand on the forests. Those who manage forests say biomass can be done without depleting the supply of wood.
It Can Be Done
Recent studies for Traverse City Light and Power show there's plenty of wood within seventy-five miles to power a small biomass plant, but how much of it can be taken to produce energy without depleting forest soils and degrading the ecosystem?
"Biomass is one of the renewable resources that can be done very badly or it can be done very well," says Steve Smiley.
Smiley is a strong proponent of renewable energy. He's based his career on it. He was part of Light and Power's windmill project, the first commercially scaled turbine in the country.
Four years ago, Smiley did a feasibility study of a much smaller biomass project for Light and Power. He supports the utility going totally renewable, but to do that means generating a continuous supply of electricity, what's called base load, whenever you flip on the switch.
That's what both coal and nuclear provide. Smiley says biomass can do it too, with a renewable source of energy from the forest.
"But you have to reach the right scale and efficiency to make it affordable so we don't have double the electric rates," he says. "Biomass, because the fuel supply can be sustainable and because it is pretty cheap, is top on the list for base load power."
Conservation A Better Move
It's not on the top of the list for environmental groups like the Sierra Club. They emphasize using less energy and using it more efficiently, along with wind and solar. The club is not so worried the forests will be cut down to make electricity. But they say it doesn't make economic sense to use whole trees.
"Michigan has a very valuable forested resource, says Marvin Roberson, the club's forest ecologist in Michigan. "There's no way to create less jobs or less revenue than to cut the trees down and put them in a furnace and set them on fire.
"Chip board, paper, all create more wealth and jobs than that does; furniture and other things, far more."
Not An Either-Or
But it's not an either-or situation according to Dennis Becker, in the forestry department at the University of Minnesota. He's studied the biomass market across the upper Great Lakes states, including Michigan. Becker agrees biomass pays the lowest price and creates the least value for the industry, but, he says, typically it's available only when there's enough demand for the highest value forest products.
When demand is depressed, as it has been lately, markets for slightly higher value logs, called "round wood," shift around.
"We definitely are seeing some round wood chipped up for energy production," Becker says. "As those markets recover, as oriented strand board, paper markets stabilize, they are going to be able to pay more than a biomass energy market ever will be able to pay."
Forest Management Key
On the site of a logging operation on state land in Benzie County, a crew is taking select trees from this beech, sugar maple woods. Dave Lemmien oversees the forests in a five-county area around Traverse City for the state Department of atural Resources and Environment, or DNRE.
He says in a high quality hardwood stand like the one found here, the logger isn't allowed to drag whole trees out to where they're piled up for hauling. That's to keep the limbs from banging into other trees and damaging them. So that means the tops and limbs are left on the forest floor instead of being chipped up. This is an improvement harvest.
Some valuable large saw logs are taken for the high end markets, but a lot more are left to grow. And there's a big stack of less valuable logs of various sizes and kinds from trees that have been thinned out to allow more valuable species more room.
Lemmien says if demand for raw material for the building or the paper industries is down, then some of this wood may end up as pallets, or firewood, or biomass.
He says those decisions are left to the loggers'.
But no matter what, Lemmien says, an expanded biomass market isn't going to mean cutting more trees or changing the management practices the DNRE uses.
"This whole realm it's market driven, it's not really resource driven," says Lemmien. "We're going to continue to manage the way we've always managed.
It's just how the loggers utilize what they purchase within a timber sale. That's what's going to change and the reason you would see change in that is because of the markets. It's where they can make the most profit."
Another way the DNRE makes sure harvests are sustainable, not taking too much off the forest, is by requiring certification from the loggers and the mills that buy the wood. They have to document that their practices don't cause damage to soils, water and other forest life.
But Marvin Roberson, with the Sierra Club, says certification doesn't address some of the issues he's raised.
"Whole tree harvesting is not excluded under FSC certification," he says. "Which is taking all the biomass, sticks leaves everything chipping it up, and taking it offsite.
"Nobody's got a good handle on what that does to the soils long term, because we haven't been studying it long term. We haven't been doing it long term."
Certain timber sales require clear cutting of the forest to regenerate growth in species like aspen that need open sunlight for the roots to sprout new trees. And red pine plantations eventually are cleared because they don't reseed themselves and need to be replanted.
Some of those sales will be chipped up for biomass, but forest managers say it's not the predominant practice.
Still, Roberson thinks an increase in biomass production will demand too much of the forest.
"Right now in Michigan we have very young recovering forests," he says. "White pine will grow to 350 years. And we have very few over 100 years old right now.
"So what's happening is that our forests are recovering and getting older and getting back to the condition that nature intended them to be in. And demand like this will be for young fast growing species like Aspen which means we'll continue to arrest the development of our forests."
Forest researcher Dennis Becker says the controversy comes when people place different values on what are the highest and best uses of the forest.
One key value certainly is biodiversity and the long term health of the forest. Another value is in displacing coal and becoming more energy independent. And there's also value in creating jobs and supporting a forest industry that supplies materials most people use.
All those values are supposed to be balanced when doing an environmental assessment or following best practices under forest certification programs.
Officials with Traverse City Light and Power say they would make sure all the wood for a biomass plant comes from sources that are certified as sustainable. In fact, they say state law requires that if the utility wants to qualify for renewable energy credits.
And long-time renewable energy advocate Steve Smiley thinks some critics of Light and Power's proposal are assuming the worst.
"Mostly I think people just don't trust electric utilities to do the right thing," he says. "And I can certainly understand that because I'm in that camp.
"But when you have a utility that is locally owned and controlled and you can show up at a meeting every two weeks and give your input, that's a whole different ballgame."
Biomass proposals across Michigan also are being made by large utilities and by privately owned companies. Overall, state officials say if all the biomass projects that are being talked about become reality then demand might exceed the supply of readably available wood. But they expect the market to sort out what actually gets built on the large scale, and that certification and best practices will protect against overharvesting where forests are managed on the ground.