Thursday, May 19, 2011

"The Problem with Biomass, Part 1"

I'll be referring to this in a future post.

From James Kwak:
Did you know that my wife is a “high-paid consultant” for the shadowy anti-biomass movement? Neither did I — and I’m the one who handles all of our finances, so I should know.

Last night she testified at a hearing held by the Springfield City Council, which is considering revoking the permit of Palmer Renewable Energy (PRE) to build a biomass plant in Springfield. PRE was granted a special zoning permit to build the plant in 2008. Since then, PRE has increased the amount of fuel it intends to burn (meaning, among other things, that more diesel trucks will have to drive in and out to deliver the material) and changed the type of fuel from construction and demolition debris to “green wood chips” (which matters because the plant was initially permitted as a recycling facility).*

My wife, a professor of environmental economics and econometrics, testified about the link between emissions (from power plants and diesel trucks) and illness, particularly asthma. At the hearing, one of PRE’s witnesses claimed not to know where my wife was “getting” the idea that air pollution can cause asthma. (In a newspaper article, PRE had this to say about asthma: “Valberg said there are many theories on the causes of asthma, and that indoor air quality in homes and schools is actually more of concern than outdoor air. For opponents to state that the project will worsen asthma rates ‘is just not scientifically accurate,’ Valberg said.”)

Well. Many, many studies have linked outdoor air pollution to asthma incidence or morbidity (Mortimer 2002, McConnell 2006, Ho 2007, Islam 2007, Loyo-Berrios 2007, Halonen 2008, O’Connor 2008 (summary here); Islam 2008 reviews studies of traffic-related asthma; Patel 2009 reviews studies of childhood asthma) and to bad cardiopulmonary health in general (Samet 2000, Pope 2002, Vedal 2003). I could come up with lots more citations, but you get the point.


Recently, the biomass developers have been arguing that they are the victims of a high-paid, high-powered, shadowy network of environmental activists. See for example this Springfield Republican article that largely repackages PRE’s talking points; its lead is “The developers of a proposed 35-megawatt wood-burning plant in East Springfield say the opposition to their project is well-organized, determined and well-funded.” (The Biomass Power Association blames a “small, vocal, extreme minority.”)

Well, I can tell you that my wife drove down to Springfield after work, spent four hours at the meeting, came home late at night, missed dinner, and didn’t get paid a cent.

* There is a legal issue about the standard necessary to justify revoking a permit that has already been granted, but that’s not relevant for this blog post.

1 comment:

  1. There seems to be some downside to all forms of energy production. Biomass and coal have the effluent issue. Oil was a very energy-dense fuel with better exhaust characteristics but we are running out of it. Hydro-electric power usually includes Dams that can fail (with fairly serious consequences). Solar is comparatively inefficient. Nuclear has some pretty nasty accidents, when they happen.

    It's hard optimization problem and made harder by the vested interests involved.