Facing the Vocal Opposition

As the biomass power industry grows, so do the organizations that seek to stop it. Opponents have been influential in postponing and even terminating plans for proposed plants, forcing developers to be more savvy in their pubic outreach.
By Lisa Gibson
Opposition groups have been vocal and relentless recently in their campaigns to stymie progress in the biomass power industry. From local citizen groups to statewide organizations endorsed by environmentalists, biomass adversaries are making their case to state and local agencies and in some instances have been successful in quashing plant proposals.

Faced with possible lawsuits and intense disagreements that would have meant more money and delays, Georgia-based Biomass Gas & Electric pulled its plans in 2009 to build a 43-megawatt (MW) biomass power plant in Tallahassee, Fla. The plant had been approved by the city commission and had a power purchase agreement with a local utility. "We saw that there was this relentless opposition that I thought was going to result in, after the [public] hearing process or even before it was done, more lawsuits," says then BG&E CEO Glenn Farris, who is now the director of business development for Biomass Energy Holdings, a joint partnership of BG&E and Bianchi Energy Holdings. "I just didn't see any end in sight."

Citizens had requested a public hearing for the Tallahassee plant before the state Department of Environmental Protection could issue a permit, but BG&E changed its plans before the process was carried out. "I have absolutely no doubt we would have won that fight," Farris says, adding that BG&E met all the EPA guidelines. The opposition group alleged that the DEP didn't do its work in evaluating the effects of the plant on local air and water quality; that the regulations weren't strict enough; and that BG&E provided incomplete or false data regarding the plant's operations. Concerns included ash, noise, forest depletion and pollution. "Nothing was based in fact because certainly the toxicologists' facts were on our side," Farris says. Ambient air modeling showed the plant was an insignificant source of pollution compared with other industries in the area. Forest depletion is a difficult concern to back up, he adds, as the forest products industry is dominant in Florida and Georgia.

BG&E tried to correct the widely distributed misinformation in numerous public forums, speaking openly and honestly about all allegations against the plant, company and biomass power industry, according to Farris. "By far, 90 percent of the people we met with, who were willing to have an honest dialogue, walked away saying, ‘You're not what I thought you were and I can support the project,'" he says. Still, Farris decided to move his plant to Port St. Joe, Fla., to avoid further setbacks.

Following the change in plans, Farris was inundated with feedback from disappointed Tallahassee citizens and officials. "Certainly over 80 percent of the comments expressed great dismay that we were leaving," he says. "So even in Tallahassee, while it was a lot more people [in opposition], it was never the majority of the people who live there, but they were certainly vocal and they were well-organized."

A Better Place

Letters of dismay were not the only response Farris received, though. "Literally the day they heard we pulled out of Tallahassee, I started getting e-mails and requests for meetings from many communities asking us to look at their sites," he says. The mayor of Port St. Joe had contacted BG&E when it first announced its Tallahassee plans in 2008, asking why the company hadn't chosen his city. "He thought it would be a much better place and in fact, he was right," Farris laughs.

Biomass Energy Holdings, which has taken on BG&E's projects, is currently going through the public hearing process in Port St. Joe for its 47 MW Northwest Florida Renewable Energy Center that will gasify wood waste. The request for a hearing delayed the project a few months, but the 16- to 18-month construction period should begin by the fourth quarter of this year, according to Farris. "We have every intention of following through with this process in Port St. Joe," he says. Those opposed to the new location are largely the same who trampled the Tallahassee plans. "But we got in front of it a little better in Port St. Joe," he says. "I'm not sure how strong their opposition really is, but it's certainly nothing like what we faced in Tallahassee."

Port St. Joe is familiar with the forest products industry, as it hosted a paper mill up until 1999, so the community was receptive and even supportive of such a project, Farris says. Biomass Energy Holdings has also done a few things differently this time around that he thinks will help. The company went to the community after the site was under control to preemptively debunk the opposition's claims, and set up a tour of the 10 MW biomass gasification plant at the University of South Carolina for city and county officials, along with community leaders. "They could see firsthand that it was not the dioxin-spewing, cancer killer that the opposition claims it is," he says.

Public Outreach

News media in and around Rothschild, Wis., have drawn attention recently to a growing group of citizens against a proposed 50 MW We Energies biomass power plant that would run on wood waste. The $255 million co-generation plant is proposed on a Domtar Paper Mill site, allowing it access to the same fuel suppliers. The facility would supply steam to the Domtar mill, effectively eliminating four of its boilers and reducing pollution on the site by 30 percent, according to Brian Manthey, We spokesman. We submitted its application to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission in March and is now filing permits with the Department of Natural Resources. If all goes well, construction will begin next year with an operation date in 2013, Manthey says.

Opponents held a meeting March 26 that attracted about 150 people from the village of 5,000, a disappointing head count according to opposition leaders, who are concerned about sustainability, emissions, traffic and noise. But We has been holding its own community meetings and Manthey says the outlook is positive, with no expected delay in construction or operation. "From the beginning, we have set out a plan to reach out to the community and be responsive to the community," he explains. "At this point, early on in the process, it's been for the most part a positive reaction. Those who have been skeptical or have questions, we've reached out to meet with them." Manthey says open communication and accessibility are No. 1 priorities. "Any change in the neighborhood, naturally you want to know how it will affect you," he says.

Besides meetings, We's campaign has included newsletters, direct mail and door-to-door visits to educate citizens of the plant's benefits, including lower emissions; improved standing for the Domtar mill in the paper industry through increased energy efficiency and lower costs; and shared revenue for the village from the state for hosting an electricity-generating facility. But providing information and answering questions is just the tip of the iceberg. "Our job isn't done," Manthey says. "The burden of proof is on us."

Opposition has not affected timelines of any other renewable project We has undertaken, but it has cropped up. "We've never had a project with 100 percent acceptance and we never will," Manthey says. "We've been down this road with a number of projects in the past few years." Because the plant is under 100 MW, We needs a Certificate of Authority from the PSC, which does not require a public hearing, but the company has asked the PSC to hold one anyway. "We look at the public outreach as being critical, as critical as any piece of that biomass plant," Manthey says.

Statewide Stalemate

Broad and defiant opposition to biomass power in Massachusetts has become the most illustrative example in the country of the effects an organized contention can have on a project. Numerous local groups have assembled to protest proposals in their neighborhoods and a circulating statewide initiative would mandate biomass power plants emit no more than 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour in order to qualify for the state renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Without that qualification, plants will not generate renewable energy credits, a key portion of their revenue. The initiative, slated to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot, would hamper renewable energy development in the state, making it extremely difficult to meet its RPS of 20 percent by 2025.

The Committee for a Clean Economy has established a coalition that will inform the public of that and other negative impacts the initiative would impose. "It completely ignores the life-cycle analysis of biomass, considered to be carbon neutral," says Matthew Wolfe, chairman of the Committee for a Clean Economy and principal of Madera Energy, a renewable energy project developer. The coalition will address "not in my backyard" (NIMBY)-related issues, as well as general misinformation about biomass power and its renewable capacity. Wolfe is optimistic that his group will succeed in convincing voters that the initiative is unreasonable and unnecessary.

In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources suspended consideration of all new biomass projects for participation in the state RPS as it awaits the results of a third-party study to determine sustainability and carbon neutrality of biomass power. The study, led by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, was heavily influenced by fierce opposition and should be completed by June, with any new rulings released by the end of the year.

Citizens in New Mexico have followed suit and are trying to convince the state that burning woody biomass from forests is unwise for both the forests and residents, alleging harmful pollution. The group has asked the state legislature not to include forest woody biomass in the RPS, making it ineligible for tax credits.

Simple Answers

"Whenever a concern is raised by someone in the public, that's a legitimate concern," says Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association. "Making sure these projects meet federal, state and local standards is obviously the No. 1 concern of any developer. We do think, though, that in the case of biomass, the answers are quite simple."

There is a lack of understanding and plenty of misinformation circulating because biomass development, having seen its boom in the '80s and '90s, has been slow until recently, Cleaves says. Biomass is important for states to meet aggressive RPSs and that point is sometimes lost and needs to be emphasized, he adds. Cleaves doesn't think the recent staunch opposition will slow down overall development of the biomass industry, saying it's part of the renewable energy landscape. "We think when people evaluate the information and understand the benefits of these projects, ultimately they get approved," he says. "Just like we're confident in what's going on in Massachusetts with the sustainability study, we welcome these opportunities to explain the benefits of the industry and share information. Ultimately, the merits of what we're doing win out, hands down."

A Little Help

As anti-biomass groups grow larger and louder, public relations companies are shifting their focus to include the biomass industry in their operations. Public Strategy Group Inc. runs grassroots campaigns to address NIMBY-isms for its clients and President Al Maiorino says he has contacted several biomass developers in light of recent events. "Opposition to biomass is relatively new and is coming to the media in the forefront now," he says. "I think it's a good source of energy and like wind, it's got some misrepresentations because opposition is getting bigger out there."

London-based Consense is handling its first biomass consulting campaign, defending the 40 MW waste-wood fueled Thetford Renewable Energy Plant proposed in Thetford, Norfolk, England, by MEIF Renewable Energy Holdings Ltd. The main concerns are visual and traffic-related, but most citizens are intrigued by the plans, rather than concerned, according to Jessica Topham, Consense operations director.

Demand for consultation in the U.K. is growing, she says, as the recently established Infrastructure Planning Commission, which evaluates large applications including power plants, will not even consider a planning application without evidence of thorough public consultation. Consense offers an online channel for communicating plans, storing public feedback, and generating responses to questions. "It's really effective for involving people who wouldn't normally get involved-and that includes supporters of renewable energy who typically don't always voice their opinions," Topham says.

Maiorino advises project developers to meet with adversaries, as well as supporters, saying opposition comes out in a blizzard but proponents are harder to hear. "Get them all in one room," he says. "See why they're supportive and how they're willing to assist."

The biggest mistake developers tend to make is not getting their message out early, according to Maiorino. "If you start at the beginning and get your information out there, you don't spend so much time correcting the opposition," he says.
"Uncertainty and inaccessibility can trip up projects more than the actual project can," Manthey says. BIO

Lisa Gibson is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at lgibson@bbiinternational.com or (701) 738-4952.