Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 24, 2010

Biomass plan 'shelved'

BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — Public opposition torched Traverse City Light & Power's proposed construction of a wood-burning biomass plant.

The Light & Power board agreed Tuesday night to take a harder look at natural gas-fired electrical generating plants, relegating its controversial biomass gasification plant to a low-priority option.

"I think it's shelved right now," said city Commissioner Ralph Soffredine, a member of the Light & Power board. "We did not do a good job getting the information out and getting people behind us, so we need to move on. This is a matter of listening to the people."

Opponents said biomass would lead to deforestation, create heavy truck traffic, and cause health problems due to particulate matter in the emissions.

"It's worth celebrating that they are listening to the public, but we are moving forward with our opposition to make sure it's not just a low priority but no priority," said Jeff Gibbs, of Traverse City, who helped lead opposition to the plant. "Biomass is just the worst option of all; it's dirtier than fossil fuels, and it's not economical."

Gibbs said there's no perfect energy solution, but said natural gas, even coal, is better than biomass.

City Commissioner and board member Jim Carruthers said he'll look at natural gas, but he still prefers biomass over coal. He blamed Light & Power administrators and paid media consultant Keith Schneider for doing "a horrible job" getting accurate information to the public.

"A lot of misinformation was shared out there by the anti-biomass group, and we didn't get a lot of facts about gasification of biomass out to the public," he said.

"We dropped the ball and lost control of this process with Keith Schneider and the public forums and never regained it," Carruthers said. "The forum was a very directed and controlled environment, and people's questions weren't answered."

Schneider said he was disappointed to hear Light & Power was moving away from biomass.

"We did the best we could against a strong, vocal opposition," Schneider said. "Such is the hard work of gaining or establishing better political ideas in a tough era where change is resistant."

Light & Power's goal is to create 30 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2020. City Manager R. Ben Bifoss said in an e-mail to the city commission that Light & Power can't meet that goal if it pursues natural gas generation.

Mike Coco, Light & Power board chairman, said the board will discuss possible changes to its power-generating goals at a study session in July while staff study options for natural gas plants. Coco said they will look at possibly building a stand-alone plant, converting a Kalkaska plant designed to help with peak power demands to constant use, and combining wind generation with a gas plant that kicks on when the wind stops.

"We are going to have to go back and make decisions about another generation source," Cocoa said. "But I'm not ready yet to say natural gas is the top priority for the board."

Coco said the utility should meet the state mandate of 10 percent generation from renewable sources by 2015. Five new wind turbines will boost it to about 7 percent by the end of the year, and they hope to make up the rest with power generated from landfill gas.

Whichever direction the board goes, Coco said he expects opposition and the utility will have to do a better job getting accurate information to the public early in the process.

"We have had environmentalists tell us natural gas is a better option, but other environmental groups are going to oppose it," he said. "There is no silver bullet. If a silver bullet did exist, we'd be doing it and other utilities would be doing it."