The biomass wars: Fuzzy definitions and heated debate

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Asking people what “biomass” means is like asking four drunken and blindfolded football fans to describe an elephant by touch. Not only will each of them describe something different, but sooner or later a fight is liable to break out.

Everyone agrees that “biomass” has to do with burning some sort of fuel to generate energy, but the type of fuel can range from sustainably harvested tree waste all the way down to sewage sludge and methane gas, depending on who you talk to. Federal biomass programs have even funded studies on the burning of tires, not considered by most experts to be biomass. The problem is that each state sets its own definition of what biomass is, and that definition has historically been controlled by industry lobbyists, rather than science.

Last June Xcel shut down its coal-fired steam pipeline to the Rock-Tenn factory in St. Paul, depriving the paper recycler of a major source of power. Unions and concerned community members that saw the move coming feared the company would simply skip town, leaving 500 union workers without jobs. Minnesota state senator Ellen Anderson, a long-time supporter of environmental causes, saw it as an opportunity to preserve the factory while transitioning it to a more sustainable fuel source. She sponsored a bill in 2007 setting up a citizen’s advisory committee, the Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel (RCAP) that was tasked with studying renewable fuel options that could keep the paper recycling giant running.

For background, see the Daily Planet’s earlier series on Rock-Tenn issues.
Re-fueling Rock Tenn: environmental and economic challenges
Who’s on First? Keeping track of the players
Following the money: who pays and who profits
Garbage or green energy: a look at the issues around RDF

By 2007, the definition of “biomass,” was no longer the same as it was in 1994 when the state first took an interest in the fuel. Legislators had originally defined biomass as “agricultural products grown for fuel” in an attempt to stimulate new markets for fast-growing trees and plant waste. But over the years lobbyists from corporations like Fibrominn, eager to drink at the trough of renewable energy tax credits, were able to get the products they represented classified as “renewable biomass.” Waste wood from construction and demolition and chicken manure were soon added to the list of items that could be burnt for renewable energy. In 2003 Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF) was also added to the list. RDF is a shredded material made from grinding municipal solid waste after the glass and ferrous metals have been removed. It has provoked controversy from environmentalists and neighbors over the years, who point to studies by groups ranging from the British Society for Ecological Medicine to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis highlighting the health and economic costs of the fuel. Today much of the waste from the Twin Cities ends up as RDF, which is burned to produce electricity in several facilities across the state.

Municipal solid waste from St. Paul and Ramsey County is sent to a processing facility in Newport, MN to be ground into RDF. So is the waste from next-door Washington County. In 1987, the two counties first signed contracts (see sidebar) to process county waste into RDF for the next 20 years.

From garbage to fuel

RDF begins life as municipal solid waste, the garbage picked up from St. Paul alleys by an assortment of private haulers. Property owners—individuals and businesses—choose a private hauler and pay that hauler to take away the garbage. That’s where the haulers get their income. Their expenses include paying employees, maintaining trucks, fuel for transportation, and paying someone to let them dump the garbage in a landfill or processing facility. That payment is called a tipping fee.

Tipping fees at landfills pay the landfill owner’s cost of buying the land, digging the hole, and maintaining an environmentally safe operation. Tipping fees at processing facilities—such as Resource Recovery Technologies’ Newport RDF facility—pay the cost of sorting and shredding the garbage, landfilling the non-burnable elements, and processing the rest into fuel. It costs a lot more than burying garbage in a landfill.

The Newport facility now owned by Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) opened its doors 20 years ago, with a contract for processing of waste into RDF. At that time, the Newport facility was owned by NSP. Later, NSP spun off the operation and ownership of Newport to a wholly-owned subsidiary called NRG. The Ramsey-Washington contract continued into 2007. Before the contract expired, Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) bought the assets of NRG. RRT has the same facility, management and labor that NRG had. Ramsey and Washington Counties entered into a new contract with RRT. The RRT facility in Newport receives municipal solid waste from Ramsey and Washington counties and processes it into refuse-derived fuel. In the case of RRT’s Newport plant, millions of dollars in subsidies are paid every year by Ramsey and Washington County taxpayers.

Over the years, garbage incineration revealed itself to be a very expensive method of waste disposal. RDF has proved to be an uneconomical fuel. The RDF produced in Newport is “sold” to Xcel Energy, which burns the RDF along with coal. But the “sale” actually involves paying Xcel to take the RDF.

In addition, the counties have to subsidize the Newport plant’s acquisition of municipal solid waste. The counties’ contract with the RDF required the counties to deliver a certain amount of waste to the facility. A 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision said that cities and counties could not order garbage haulers to take municipal waste to a specific destination. Garbage haulers pay “tipping fees” to the place where they take their waste. Tipping fees for landfills are substantially lower than tipping fees at RDF plants.

Ramsey and Washington Counties began subsidizing tipping fees at the garbage incinerators to keep them running and see their contracts through to the end. When the contracts expired in July, both counties finally had an opportunity to find a cheaper method of waste disposal. Instead, they renewed their contracts—and the subsidies—for another five years. According to Ramsey County’s website “the counties saw an opportunity to further explore a shift from heavy government involvement to a more market-based approach…”

“That’s something I’ve never really figured out,” says David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “I’ve asked people at the county why [the contracts were renewed] and never gotten a straight answer.”

While county governments have committed themselves to RDF “biomass,” plans for incinerators fueled by other types of biomass have popped up like gophers across the state. Minnesota Power already owns wood-fired generators in Grand Rapids and Duluth, and other corporations are proposing them for south Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota-Morris campus. The most visible example, however, has been St. Paul’s District Energy, a non-profit energy corporation that bills itself as “the largest, most successful hot water district heating system in North America.” The company has burned wood to heat and cool buildings in downtown St. Paul since 2003.

The high public cost of subsidizing RDF burning, as well as the air pollution created by its combustion, have led some environmentalists to advocate burning other forms of biomass, such as wood and agricultural products. That doesn’t mean they’re rushing towards it with open arms. Don Arnosti, Director of the Forestry Program at the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, is also a member of RCAP and spends up to 20 hours a week pouring over various biomass fuel proposals. He gives his cautious endorsement to some of them.

“RDF is a dirty, corrosive fuel…But it doesn’t mean biomass is the silver bullet for our energy needs. I like to call it the silver BB,” he says.

Arnosti adds that certain types of biomass fuels, mainly organically-grown agricultural products, could become a stepping stone toward more environmentally-sound technologies in the future. He sees wind and solar power as ideals to strive for, but feels that that limitations caused by cost and the unpredictable natures of the sun and wind don’t always make them reliable for industries like Rock-Tenn that demand a constant and steady fuel source. Biomass incinerators, he adds, have the advantage of being able to be built in areas the wind and sun don’t always reach. He supports certain biomass facilities, such as the Koda Energy plant currently under construction in Shakopee, a facility that plans to generate steam and electricity by mainly burning agricultural waste from the malting process.

“If you’re running your furnace well you can have a very clean burn,” he comments.

At the same time, Arnosti warns that constant vigilance is needed to keep biomass from becoming another environmentally-destructive form of energy. The type of biomass he envisions would be locally produced and burned, so as not to expend resources by hauling it over long distances. He recommends that governments adopt guidelines similar to those being established by the Minnesota Forest Resources Council to ensure that biomass wood waste is sustainably harvested.

Other environmentalists are not so sure. Critics claim the establishment of a new biomass industry won’t help pave the way for emission-free wind and solar technologies.

“…This theory has the premise that investing money in something over 30 years will bring us to a situation that’s totally different,” says Mike Ewall, founder of the Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network, an environmental organization that advocates for clean energy solutions on college campuses. “…Solar and wind power is already far cheaper than biomass.”

In St. Paul, a community organization called Neighbors against the Burner also believes there is no way to make biomass—no matter which form it takes—an environmentally safe fuel option. The group began meeting in April 2007 to oppose the threat of the proposed Rock-Tenn incinerator burning RDF. Although some members of the group were initially supportive of wood-fueled biomass as a solution for Rock-Tenn, Bev Ferguson, a retired communications professor at Metro State University and one of the group’s founding members, says that after researching the emissions from wood, she won’t lend her support to any biomass fuel options, even wood waste.

“We have grave questions about burning wood,” says Ferguson. “… We would need to see a lot more proof [in the Rock-Tenn proposal] that it’ll be clean wood, that there’s enough wood to actually run it, and that this isn’t just a back-door effort to get to RDF.”

Ferguson would rather see the RCAP panel focus on conservation than combustion. She says many of the group members think Rock-Tenn isn’t interested in adopting efficiency measures for their plant that could reduce its fuel consumption.

“Let’s get that plant as tight as we can so we’re not wasting so much fuel, then we’ll see how much we really need. We don’t think wind and solar have really been explored by the panel, but if it turns out that they simply won’t work we think the cleanest thing would be to continue with the natural gas, even if we end up having to subsidize it.”

In the end, biomass represents different sets of aspirations for those on all sides of the debate. To county governments, biomass means RDF and a new burner at Rock-Tenn is another mouth to feed municipal solid waste to. For the waste incineration industry, labeling RDF as “renewable biomass” offers a way to trigger increased demand for their products and allows waste incinerators to compete for research funding that was once reserved for solar and wind. For some environmentalists, biomass made from plant materials represents a more reliable fuel source than the fickle wind and sun and a possible stepping stone towards more sustainable technology. For others it’s seen as a distraction from the goal of creating a society free of carbon emissions. The timber industry, according to Arnosti, is split on the issue. Some see wood biomass as a new market for forest products, while others think it will increase competition for their products and force down the price of salvage tree waste. As the Rock-Tenn Advisory Panel gears up to deliver its recommendation on a fuel source that will keep the plant running, all of these interests will be seen clustered around the table, eager to have their competing voices heard.

Dan Gordon is a free-lance writer in the Twin Cities. He can be reached at upagainstthewalrus@riseup.net