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Every year 24,000 people die prematurely because of pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Every year 38,000 heart attacks occur because of pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Every year 12,000 hospital admissions and 550,000 people suffering asthma attacks result from power plant pollution.

Every year, coal-fired power plants release 48 tons of mercury nationwide.

Power plants release over 40% of total U.S. C02 emissions, a primary contributor to global warming...

...and yet the coal industry wants you to believe that building more coal fired power plants in Michigan is a good idea!

...and now utilities want to burn (as biomass) our trees that capture and store harmful carbon dioxide and produce the oxygen we need to live


The following is an editorial by M'Lynn Hartwell; co-founder and senior researcher with the Jobs and Energy Group, a Traverse City based think-tank providing research and information pertaining to traditional and emerging energy solutions, as well as job opportunities in these emerging fields..

Biomass: The High Cost of Cheap Electricity

Why is biomass so hot right now In Traverse City? The reason for the biomass “boom” is that taxpayers are providing substantial financial incentives without regard to impacts on forest heal, regional water impacts and waste disposal, all of which adversley impact our health in TC region. The rationale for these taxpayer subsidies is the presumption that biomass is “renewable” energy. But like other “quick fixes” there has been very little serious scrutiny of biomass real costs, health, and environmental impacts. Woody biomass energy is neither green, nor truly economical. It is also not ecologically sustainable and it jeopardizes our forest ecosystems.

In fact, Bob Cleaves, the Biomass Power Association president, says that ... "biomass energy plants would have closed without the Federal subsidy program." He goes on to say, “the production tax credit is really a lifeline for the industry. We’re on the ragged edge as it is.” This should be a pretty convincing indicator that biomass is not a silver bullet to the problems in NW Michigan. It is an uncompetitive product and might not be in the market without production tax credits and other incentives. Biomass is a distraction that funnels funds and attention away from other more truly worthwhile energy options, in particular, the need for a massive energy conservation program, and changes in our lifestyles that will in the end provide truly green alternatives.

What is biomass?

Biomass was defined into Michigan Law: as Act No. 295 Public Acts of 2008 (Senate Bill 213). It reads, “AN ACT to require certain providers of electric service to establish renewable energy programs; to require certain providers of electric or natural gas service to establish energy optimization programs; to authorize the use of certain energy systems to meet the requirements of those programs; “Biomass” means any organic matter that is not derived from fossil fuels, that can be converted to usable fuel for the production of energy: (i) Agricultural crops and crop wastes. (ii) Short-rotation energy crops. (iii) Herbaceous plants. (iv) Trees and wood... (v) Paper and pulp products. (vi) Precommercial wood thinning waste, brush, or yard waste. (vii) Wood wastes and residues from the processing of wood products or paper. (viii) Animal wastes. (ix) Waste-water sludge or sewage. (x) Aquatic plants. (xi) Food production and processing waste. (xii) Organic by-products from the production of bio-fuels.”

Breathe in ... Breathe out...

If you live in northern Michigan, you may already think of our forests as “the lungs of the earth” or “natural air purifiers.” You already understand that forests provide the oxygen you breathe. You may not be familiar with the corollary benefit of sequestering (storing) carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere, but we can all appreciate having large areas of healthy forests to help balance the web of life and maintain a stable climate.

We need to maintain, not diminish our forests capacity to store carbon-dioxide, otherwise we will pay to store it underground How is it then that the biomass industry believes that climate change will be helped in the short term by cutting down forests, turning them into wood chips, shipping them hundreds of miles every day by the diesel-fueled semi-truck load, and setting fire to them to make electricity? Are we about to screw up the environment in the same way we screwed up the economy? The answer is twofold. First, as is all too often the case, economic interests trump intelligent thinking. Second, there is a strange loophole in the Kyoto Protocol rules that currently allows a tree to be burned without having to account for the carbon released when a tree is used as fuel. Of course in the atmosphere, a CO2 molecule, is a CO2 molecule regardless of the source (coal, biomass, or petrochemical).

Claims of Carbon Neutrality ... Who's Counting?

Claims of “carbon neutrality” by biomass and industry proponents rely on outdated information and questionable assumptions. When trees are cut down and burned, the carbon enters the environment in minutes, rather than rotting over years. New trees need a long time to reabsorb this carbon burst. It does not require a degree in atmospheric chemistry to realize that this practice will exacerbate global climate change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tells us, for a given amount of CO2 released today, about half will be taken up by the oceans, lakes, rivers, and terrestrial vegetation over the next 30 years, and a further 30 percent will be removed over a few centuries, and the remaining 20 percent will take thousands of years to remove from the atmosphere (Source U.S. EPA April 2009 74. Fed. Reg. 18886, 18899). This EPA report goes on to state,” historic data that go back many thousands of years show that current atmospheric concentrations of two directly emitted, long-lived greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) are well above the natural range of atmospheric concentrations compared to the last 650,000 years. Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have been increasing because human emissions have been outpacing the ability of the natural environment to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere over timescales of centuries. Future atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations—not only for the remainder of the current century but indeed for centuries well beyond 2100—will be influenced by our present and near-term greenhouse gas emissions.”

Science Magazine, in an article published in Vol. 247. on pp. 699 – 702, reads, “Both the Department of Forest Science, College of Forestry, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, and the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, came to the conclusion that: 'During simulated timber harvest, on-site carbon storage is reduced considerably and does not approach old-growth storage capacity for at least 200 years.” While burning a few chunks of wood in our fireplace or woodstove may conjure up pleasant images, the promotion of burning thousands of acres of Michigan forests every year as “renewable” energy is a colossal “greenwash” by the timber and trash industries attempting to cash in on lucrative government subsidies. Biomass burning is not a healthy or sensible energy solution.

Arsenic is stored in the brain, bones, and tissue.Inhaling low levels of inorganic arsenic can result in stomach ache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  It can also result in decreased production of red and white blood cells which may cause fatigue, abnormal heart rhythm, blood-vessel damage resulting in bruising, and impaired nerve function. Other signs and symptoms include skin thickening, fluid accumulation (resulting in puffiness) especially around the lower eyelids, face and ankles, diarrhea, garlic breath, perspiration, excessive salivation, generalized itching, oral inflammation, sore throat, runny nose, excessive tearing, numbness, skin inflammation, hair loss, weakness, and loss of appetite. Arsenic can also cause a range of neurological effects, including headaches and vision problems. It can cause noticeable behavioral changes, most commonly aggression or depression.

Cyanide exposure over time contributes to weakness, and other medical concerns in humans. Parkinson's disease has been implicated in studies of firefighters repeatedly exposed to cyanide.

Make My Energy Habit Healthy Please

Speaking of our health, a growing number of medical health organizations are coming out strongly in opposition to biomass burning, these include respected organizations such as the the American Lung Association which views biomass burning as a significant source of air pollution. Burning wood, like burning any other substance, releases toxic chemicals and particles which can negatively affect both the environment and respiratory health. In particular, biomass emissions contain fine particulate matter, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs. Biomass emissions also contain chemicals that are known or suspected to be carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxin.

For vulnerable populations, such as people with asthma, chronic respiratory disease, and those with cardiovascular disease, biomass and diesel emissions are particularly harmful. Even short exposures can prove deadly. Medical Societies, Pediatricians, and Gerontologists warn that the ramifications of an increase in health problems related to air pollution from biomass burning would be far reaching in terms of personal loss, decrease in the quality of life, loss of productivity, and increased healthcare expenses. Hundreds of well designed medical research studies clearly link long-term health effects including chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease. Air pollution has also been linked with damage to the brain, nerves, liver and kidneys. The elderly and children and especially susceptible. Public health concerns intensify when wood-burning units are located near homes, schools or hospitals in close proximity to sensitive populations.

There is no such place as "away!" It all goes somewhere, and you usually end up eating it, drinking it, or breathing it

Biomass burning also puts the fish in our rivers and lakes at risk. Aquatic toxicity due to the creation and mobilization of chemical constituents by fire indicates that fish are killed by pyrogenic toxicants. In laboratory test burns, cyanide concentrations in leachate from residual ash were higher than the lethal concentration for rainbow trout. TCL&P has proposed that we burn cherry, peach, and other pits, which are especially high in cyanide when burned. Ash runoffstressors, may contribute to fish mmortality particularly those affecting salmonids. Cyanide exposure over time contributes to weakness, and other medical concerns in humans. Parkinson's disease has been implicated in studies of firefighters repeatedly exposed to cyanide.

Transportation is another consideration that deserves our attention. If you factor in transportation by a dozen or so diesel fueled semi-trucks driving to and fro 150 miles a day between the forest and the power-plant 24/7 we are causing unnecessary damage the environment. Diesel emissions from semi-trucks not only contain high levels of CO2, and other noxious chemicals, but black carbon as well. The EPA is evaluating the role of black carbon in climate change, in addition to its role as an element of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter).

Is it just me, or is it getting warm around here?

Michigan is warming and becoming a less healthy place to live because of greenouse gas and particulate matter. Since mid-century temperatures across the state have risen over 1.25°F, and are expected to rise up to an additional 5°F by 2060.Based on these projected increases, summers in Michigan will begin to resemble those of Ohio by as early as 2030, and will eventually resemble northern Arkansas by the end of the century.

Along the shores of the Great Lakes, projections show a decrease of up to eight inches in annual rainfall by 2060. These changes are significant and the impacts are already being felt. Across the U.S. more than 80% of plant and animal species studied are shifting their ranges in reaction to less than 10 F of warming in the last century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts further warming could result in up to 30% of known species becoming extinct and the disappearance of more than one-fifth of the world's ecosystems.'

If we don't put a stop to burning coal, and biomass, we are probably sealing the fate of the human species as well. While it is extremely difficult to live without a job, it will be virtually impossible to live healthy lives if we do not have clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink, and safe food to eat. Is this the legacy we want to leave to our children?

Garbage In? Garbage Out?

In computer programming there is a term, GIGO, which means Garbage In, Garbage Out. In practice if you have defective information going in, the outcome will fail, often with unintended consequences. I believe that this principal applies to our regional discussion about biomass.

I find it interesting, for instance, that all of the TCL&P “experts” have a huge profit motive driving their support of biomass burning. From the TCL&P forester of choice Robert E. Froese who indicates that he has brought in $27,883,365.00 (yes that is nearly $28-Million) for his biomass programs, to TCL&P's wood chip consultant Gary Glawe, and the Glawe family of businesses, to the author of TCL&P's Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) from the Seattle based company R.W. Beck (a subsidiary of Science Applications International Corporation) who recently received $21-Million in Federal Dollars to develop Biomass. A quick Google search of SAIC indicates that their biomass related income is a staggering Billion-dollars so far. I think that most people would feel that these consultants are strongly biased toward promoting biomass burning anywhere and everywhere.

I believe the people of Traverse City deserve unbiased environmental consultants and data when the people of Traverse City are asked to support burning our forests for energy. Why didn't Traverse City Light and Power reach out to the all volunteer Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, an organization that has been around for over 30-years for instance, to contract for truly unbiased research by consultants who have no profit motive associated with burning our woodlands.

Get Smart!

Two things you need to know. First, there are great green energy solutions out there. We only need the political will to develop them. Second, regardless of where we get out energy, rates are going to go up, just as fuel for your vehicle has gotten expensive at the pump, our electricity will cost more than it does today. Biomass is not the solution to cheap energy.

We are able to start saving money today, through learning to conserve energy by turning off devices we aren't using. We don't need a television, computer, or light turned on, if we aren't using it. We also would do well to replace our energy-hog devices with energy sippinig devices whenever possible. The electricity you don't use, is electricity that doesn't have to be produced. If we all are more conscientious about our energy consumption, we can get by comfortably with fewer power-plants. Instead of Megawatts consumed, begin to think in terms of Negawatts not used. Conservation and energy efficiency keeps more money in your pocket.

Next encourage your utility to use Smart Grid technologies. The Smart Grid optimizes and monitors energy use, and gets energy from where it is being produced, to where it is needed. You will be able to receive information directly from your utility's smart meters and use in-home energy management devices that also visualize energy consumption information for you. The Smart Grid will also enable us to generate more of our energy from intermittent sources, such as wind and solar.

We already own hydro dams that are capable of producing a few megawatts of clean green baseload energy. The dams are listed in very-good condition in the last inspection report. Now compare this clean baseload energy that already exists and is built, to an experimental biomass plant costing thirty-million dollars or so, and reasonable people should be speaking up about protecting the dams from demolition, at least long enough to fully explore them as an energy option. Oh, it it will take many millions of dollars to demolish the dams too (I've heard about $7,000,000). We have even had indepenent operators come forward and offer to sell the energy to the city. TCL&P wouldn't even have to go near the water. I think that they at least deserve an independent assessment and a cost benefit analysis.

If the goal is to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and lower pollutants that cause disease and death, there are cleaner ways of producing electricity than from coal and biomass (coal is just really old biomass that had been buried). Natural gas emits 50% less CO2 than coal. Ninety-nine percent of Traverse City's energy is currently coming from coal. Yet, TCL&P customers already own a natural gas fueled power-plant in Kalkaska. For reasons beyond my knowledge TCL&P built this facility as a “peaker power plant” (licensed to operate only part-time), rather than as a base-load full time power generating facility. The Kalkaska plant also does not provide energy directly to Traverse City ratepayers, but rather feeds the grid powering communities to the north of Kalkaska. In any event, Traverse City ratepayers own a power-plant, and may do well to explore the possibilities of making this existing plant meet our needs by updating it to operate full-time and adding a combined-cycle turbine (free energy from waste heat), instead of building a new biomass-based power plant in Traverse City neighborhoods.

Ironically the best solutions are not limited by technology, but by political will. Would you pay an extra 23-cents a day to get America on track to being a global leader in innovation again? That's all it would cost.

For decades, the US has lead the world in innovation; automobiles, computers, airplanes, the internet, and so on. But there's one major area where we're falling behind, and that is “green energy.” Even though some of the best alternative energy technology was developed right here in the United States, we're quickly losing ground to other nations around the world. China, South Korea and Japan will invest $519 billion in clean technology between 2009 and 2013, compared to $172 billion by the U.S. government. Should this investment gap persist, the United States will import the overwhelming majority of clean energy technologies we deploy. It's time to make America number one again. We need the jobs that clean energy development will provide. We need the political will to take subsidies away from coal and biomas, and invest in clean green healthy non-polluting technologies such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal.

American's want wind and solar

Nearly all Americans – across all parties – believe that a solar energy industry is vital to the United States; Ninety-eight percent of Independents. Ninety-seven percent of Democrats. And ninety-one percent of Republicans. Solar energy, power from the sun, is a vast and inexhaustible resource.

Once a system is in place to convert it into useful energy, the fuel is free and will never be subject to the ups and downs of energy markets.

Furthermore, it represents a clean alternative to the fossil fuels that currently pollute our air and water, threaten our public health, and contribute to global warming. Heat from the sun causes temperature differences between areas, producing wind that can power turbines. Water evaporates because of the sun, falls on high elevations, and rushes down to the sea, spinning hydroelectric turbines as it passes.

All the energy stored in Earth's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas is matched by the energy from just 20 days of sunshine. Rooftop solar using todays technology can provide up to 23% of the energy we need in Michigan (according to a recently released by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance New Rules Project Report using data provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Wind is expected to continue to be one of the largest sources of new power generation, now second only to natural gas. In Michigan, onshore wind can generate 83% of the energy required (plus an additional 146% is available from offshore wind resources). The average cost to maximize Onshore Wind Power (with federal tax incentives) is reported to be 6.2-cents (NRP Report). The most important job creation policy that Congress can enact is a national Renewable Electricity Standard which will provide the long-term certainty that companies need to invest in new facilities and train workers to make the 8,000 components that go into a modern wind turbine.

The Great Lakes appears to be a gold mine for offshore wind. Because of our enormous body of water, the Great Lakes is a windy place. The five lakes, which border eight US states and Ontario, can produce more offshore wind energy than all of the US coasts combined, according to a report by the Trillium Power Wind Corporation, a company that plans to build four Great Lakes wind farms, which will produce about 3500 MW. (NRP)

In a Stanford University Study that was just published, wind, water and solar energy resources are sufficiently available to provide all the world's energy. Converting to electricity and hydrogen powered by these sources would reduce world power demand by 30 percent, thereby avoiding 13,000 coal power plants, and no forest loss to biomass would be required.

Some will argue that wind and solar are not baseload power, but green energy sources such as wind and solar can act like baseload when they are connected to a kinetic storage battery, such as the pump and store system located in the city of Ludington, Michigan. This system uses reversable pumps, storing water when the cost of energy is low and supply is plentiful. When energy needed the stored water is run downhill back through the pumps.

In fact any storage will do; batteries (Michigan leads the nation in new battery technology, development and manufacturing), compressed air, weights, carbon nanotubes, or springs. You can also use the electricity to generate hydrogen to be used later. These are all perfectly complimentary technologies to wind and solar, and the kind of solutions we will have to pursue in order to bring atmospheric greenhouse gases under control.

Go Green

In the final analysis, there is to much risk inherant in biomass, regardless of how you examine it, healthcare, environment, or risk to investors. The sooner we are able to put the biomass discussion behind us, the sooner we will be able to move forward and seek clean green energy solutions.

Yes, implimenting green technologies will cost more initially but the paypack over time will be priceless because we will have freed ourselves from having our energy costs being tied to the price of fuel inputs. The wind blows and the sun shines above free of charge or obligation, helping our plants and trees grow, cleaning the air, and generating the oxygen we breathe.

Now go for a walk in Michigan's beautiful forests. Reconnect with the life force that sustains your existence. Enjoy! Breathe in. Breathe Out. Thank the forest for the air it created for you.

Previously Published

Welcome to the Climate Change Game

Quit Coal


Coal Kills

Coal Causes Disease

Coal Costs Taxpayers

Coal Pollutes the Environment

Coal Contributes to Climate Change

Burning Coal is a Seriously Stupid Idea!

Working to make Michigan the Leader in Solutions - not pollution