POLITICS & OTHER MISTAKES
by Al Diamon (for publication the week beginning 4/18/16)
I used to think “biomass” was a prissy name for poop. Now, I know it’s a polite way of saying a poopy business model.
Wikipedia defines biomass as “organic matter derived from living, or recently living organisms. Biomass can be used as a source of energy and it most often refers to plants or plant-based materials which are not used for food or feed.”
So, it’s less like poop and more like Congress.
Biomass was supposed to use scrap wood, the stuff left over after the trees suitable for making paper had been cut. But these days, hardly anybody in Maine is making paper, so biomass now includes material that used to go into newspapers and other obsolete products.
Which would be fine if that was the only thing biomass plants burned. But in addition to trees no one else wants, these facilities also burn money – specifically public money. Since at least 2009, the biomass industry has been receiving huge federal subsidies for the electricity it produces. That year saw an initial check for $44 million arrive from Washington to boost the amount loggers were paid for their harvest. The money was supposed to help reduce dependence on foreign oil and build a sustainable industry, or as then-Congressman Michael Michaud put it:
“This program will contribute greatly to the development and investment in a clean and profitable renewable energy future in Maine. In addition, the program will provide positive economic benefits to the forest industry that will lead to job creation.”
It didn’t work out that way.
The trouble is biomass – like other energy scams such as ethanol, cold fusion and perpetual motion machines – isn’t very efficient. Whether the wood is used to create electricity or refined into “biofuel,” it requires huge subsidies. To that end, in 2010, the feds gifted the state’s biomass industry with another $150 million.
In addition, then-U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe pushed to create a tax credit to funnel even more cash into the biomass fires. Snowe promised it would “spur job growth, reduce the consumption of fossil energy and reduce carbon emissions. It is exactly the tax policy that will keep our industry competitive and begin to curtail carbon emissions.”
Of course, there were also studies showing that burning biomass was less efficient and more polluting than even coal-fired power plants. But since Maine has no coal and lots of trees, the state’s leaders dismissed this claim as blithely as West Virginia politicians ignore complaints from New England about how its coal is fouling our air. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to measure the impact of biomass plants in a way that allowed the facilities to offset their high level of emissions with the positive effects of trees that hadn’t been planted yet.
But federal foolishness and funding could only obscure the truth for so long. By 2016, reality began to intrude. New Jersey-based Covanta Holding Corp. closed its two biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro because of low energy prices. ReEnergy Holdings, owned by a New York company, warned that the state’s remaining four plants – in Livermore Falls, Stratton, Ashland and Fort Fairfield – could be shuttered within two years if the governor and Legislature didn’t come up with substantial new subsidies.
The result was a bill that would have directed the Public Utilities Commission to negotiate power deals with the plant owners at above-market rates, thereby adding somewhere between $8 million and $41 million to consumers’ electric bills. Since that would increase the already high energy costs for industrial users, opponents argued it would result in more layoffs than the approximately 400 jobs allegedly supported by biomass. They also made much of the fact that neither Covanta nor ReEnergy would guarantee their facilities would reopen or keep operating even if they got the extra cash.
So, instead of screwing ratepayers, legislators decided to screw the taxpayers. The new bill was amended to take $13.4 million that was supposed to go into the state’s rainy day fund to instead prop up decaying biomass operations. But because it only underwrites the industry’s expenses for two years, ReEnergy said it would still close at least two of its plants.
Which brings to mind a far less prissy word than poop.
- Published in Politics & Other Mistakes