It seems like an opportunity no community would pass up. A power company called Adage is planning to build a power plant at the southern shores of Puget Sound that is, according to its website, "carbon-neutral energy that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and associated greenhouse gases." It would help the depressed economy, generate hundreds of jobs, and produce enough electricity for 44,000 homes. The company says it will produce green, renewable power—the kind of power Washington wants to invest in—by burning underbrush and wood from the forest, without affecting air quality.
But residents of Shelton say the plant would be a giant incinerator—hardly an asset to the environment—and are organizing to block it. Last week, the federal government heightened regulations for these sorts of plants, citing a lack of evidence that they are carbon neutral. The issue is sufficiently confusing that local environmental groups haven't taken a stance in what is becoming a national fight.
Mason County is forest country, and Shelton, located roughly 30 miles northwest of Olympia, is smack in the thick of it. The small town has 10,000 residents and one of the worst unemployment rates in the state—10.9 percent, compared to 9.2 percent statewide. Adage is making an attractive offer: 400 local construction jobs, 100 contract jobs, and 24 permanent plant positions. Although it's a place that doesn't devote much interest to politics, according to some residents, when county commissioners announced in April that a wood-burning power plant would be built in their town by the end of the year—and billed it as an economy stimulator—residents started organizing.
"They're proposing burning 600,000 tons of wood a year," says Linda Paladin, a resident and spokeswoman for Incinerator Free Mason County, a group that formed to oppose the plant. They say that burning this wood and underbrush—called "slash" or "hog fuel"—is worse than burning coal because it releases more carbon into the air.
This would be Adage's first biomass plant in the United States. The company is the joint venture of North Carolina's Duke Energy, which runs 500 wind power plants in the U.S., and French-based Areva, which operates over 100 biomass plants globally. But last year, Adage canceled its first proposed biomass plant in the U.S., slated for Florida's panhandle region, because of community opposition based on air-quality and health concerns. Adage says its energy is carbon neutral and reduces greenhouses gases, which makes it eligible for millions of dollars worth of state and federal subsidies offered under the 2008 federal farm bill and a local business and occupation tax, among others. The company's biomass plants will burn clean woody debris—no treated wood, waste, or animal products.
"Our plant will meet all state and quality-air standards," says Adage spokesman Tom DePonty. "It's regulated."
Still, residents are concerned.
"It's a giant burn barrel, plain and simple," says Shelton resident and blogger Brenda Hirschi, who lives within 10 miles of the site. "And they want to put it right next to our town's soccer and baseball fields. How is that healthy?" It's not healthy, according to some doctors and the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, which have both lobbied against biomass plants.
But biomass power companies argue that whether wood is burned or decomposes naturally, it will release the same amount of carbon into the air—carbon that is then reabsorbed and processed by living plants. The plant works by trucking in hog fuel, processing it into wood chips, and then burning those wood chips in a giant boiler to generate electricity. Water keeps the system from overheating. A smokestack 170-feet high will release steam, not smoke, according to Adage. The ash created from burning hog fuel is filtered by "state of the art emission control technology to protect public health," according to Adage. The biomass power industry says carbon, which is still released with the steam, can be reabsorbed by new flora in 30 years or less.
But Dr. Greg Helms, a scientist and director of the analytical instrumentation lab at Washington State University, who lives nine miles from the proposed site, says this explanation—that carbon is absorbed in a few decades—isn't entirely correct. He says, "A new body of evidence puts complete uptake at much longer time scales of up to 200 years or more." Meanwhile, burning hog fuel releases that carbon in a comparative instant.
And it releases more carbon than coal or natural gas per its mass, adds Helms. "The rule of thumb is that for every pound of wood you burn, you get a pound of CO2," he says.
Paladin asks, "What is it going to do to our environment?"
The short answer is, nobody seems to know. Environmental groups appear to be caught with their pants down. "We're ramping up our investigation of it, but we don't have a position yet," says Becky Kelley, spokeswoman for the Washington Environmental Council. She says, "Biomass is just starting to come on strong in Washington State." Likewise, Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and NW Energy Coalition don't have positions yet. "We're getting lots of calls about it," says Marc Krasnowsky, spokesman for NW Energy Coalition. "We're monitoring the situation."
Meanwhile, the fight over biomass power is heating up nationally. Last year, citizens blocked Adage from opening the plant in Florida, and critics in Massachusetts are attempting to block biomass plants in their state with a November ballot initiative. Among their complaints: Supporters of the initiative, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, say biomass plants exacerbate respiratory illness. In contrast, residents in Sandpoint, Idaho, and Baker City, Oregon, are lobbying to get biomass power plants into their communities.
But whether burning biomass is green energy—or if it's just greenwashing an incinerator by adding the earth-friendly-sounding "bio"—is still in question. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that biomass power plants would not be exempt from greenhouse-gas regulations; basically, they'll be evaluated like fossil fuels. An EPA press release stated it lacked sufficient evidence to show that burning wood is a carbon-neutral process. This is a clear policy shift from treating biomass power as green, carbon-neutral energy, as the EPA has done in the past.
Back in Shelton, state senator Tim Sheldon (D-35), who also acts as a Mason County commissioner, says the Adage facility is a good fit for the community. "We have a huge timber base, and the mainstay of all our manufacturing is forest products. We have tons of slash. This is a practical fit, and one that will stimulate the local economy." Sheldon adds that community concerns are "a bit premature," considering that the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency (ORCAA) has yet to finish its environmental review of Adage's proposal.
ORCAA is expected to finish within the next month, but meanwhile, Shelton residents have other concerns they want Adage to address: "Adage won't guarantee that the jobs they create will be filled locally," says Paladin. "They won't address how running over a hundred diesel trucks through town every day to deliver slash fits into their definition of green energy."
Adage's DePonty says the company would "make a concerted effort" to hire local labor for feedstock supply and delivery jobs, people who would harvest 600,000 tons of hog fuel within a 75-mile radius of the plant. While that may support the local economy, it makes some locals nervous. According to the 2005 WSU Biomass Inventory and Bioenergy Assessment, "there is roughly 803,000 dry tons of slash in a 75-mile radius of Shelton," explains Dr. Helms. "The easy material will be harvested first; then it will be harder and harder to get to. What happens then?"
If the Avista utilities plant near Kettle Falls, Washington, is any indication, the Adage plant might shut down for weeks at a time, lacking for brush and wood. Competition for hog fuel is fierce, and trucking wood into the plant is expensive. When fuel prices climb too high, the plant shuts down. Last year, the Avista utilities plant was closed for a total of two and a half months.
Residents say they're still seeking answers from Adage. Meanwhile, the company plans to break ground on its Shelton plant in December.