For Biomass, Get It in Writing

March 16, 2010 | |

A utility in northern Minnesota signed a transparent, locally enforceable contract guaranteeing that woody fuel for its biomass plant is sustainably harvested. Photo Credit: Dan/

The debate over a proposed biomass facility in Traverse City has caused a great deal of concern among many Traverse City-area environmentalists, and rightfully so.

The greatest fear opponents of the Traverse City Light & Power’s small, 10-megawatt proposal is that its fuel providers could end up “clear-cutting the forests” in their pursuit of materials to burn.

TCL&P Executive Director Ed Rice has made clear publicly that the municipal utility has no intention to harm our forests with its biomass plant, but concerns about clear cutting remain; in fact, they’ve become a central focus of the public debate. For many, promises of sustainable wood sourcing by TCL&P just aren’t good enough.

But my reporting indicates that there are legal mechanisms that make sure TCL&P gets its wood only from the most sustainable sources. In fact, local officials-perhaps the City Commission or TCL & P’s board-could mandate the utility enter into a legally binding contract containing very specific requirements regarding where and how they get their woody fuel.

“It can be done,” said Don Arnosti, director of forestry programs at the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy Inc., a non-profit in Minneapolis, and an expert on biomass. “What they need to do (under a legally binding wood sourcing contract) is document from who they are getting the material, and when you deliver us a load of wood, you must certify and swear that, ‘Here’s how I got it and here’s where I got it.’ It offers a transparent trail (for wood sourcing.)”

Mr. Arnosti said other communities have faced the same challenges and concerns that Traverse City now faces regarding biomass, and agreed that the fear of clear-cutting for fuel is a very real one. In Northern Minnesota, three years ago, concerns about harming the forests were a central issue in a biomass controversy there. Residents were very fearful that loggers could end up clear-cutting the forests, and that the situation would worsen when demand for wood products increased.

With the controversy raging, the local utility agreed to a legally binding contract controlling its wood sourcing. The deal was simple: If the company didn’t get its wood from foresters certified under federal and state sustainability guidelines, then it wouldn’t get the credits for renewable energy generation. Without those credits, the deal was a bad financial deal for the utility.

“It comes down to the fact that project promoters will often say a whole bunch of stuff about how good they are and what they are going to do,” Mr. Arnosti said. “Well, let’s put that down into writing, into something that makes them accountable. Then, it’s not just words in the air. For those who want to hold on very tightly to sustainability, you are giving them a lot more tools to work with.”

Another benefit of a legally binding contract for wood sourcing is that it allows local officials, not distant regulators, to formulate the requirements. For instance, a legally binding contract could require that the wood only come from local sources, and prevent the utility from trucking in wood from hundreds of miles away when local sources dry up or, far more likely, wood prices increase. Local officials could implement tough penalties for a utility that violates its contract.

I asked Marvin Roberson, a forester with the Michigan Sierra Club, if he would ever support such a proposal. Mr. Roberson said he would not because, he maintains, Traverse City Light & Power continues to propose burning green wood.

“Using green, standing timber for electricity generation is the most wasteful use we can make of our forested resource,” Mr. Roberson said. “So whether certified or not, we oppose it.”

Mr. Arnosti said that if burning biomass for energy does ever come to fruition in Traverse City, the most important thing that needs to happen is careful planning to make sure it is done right. That, he said, is an issue that can’t be rushed because, if it’s done wrong, the utility could seriously damage one of our most precious resources-our forests.

“Woody biomass is one of those things where there are a dozen ways to get it wrong,” Mr. Arnosti said. “There is not just one way to get it right, but it is tricky.”

Glenn Puit is a journalist and policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at [email protected].


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