Guest View: Is Clean Air Worth a Few Jobs?
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Op-ed, Mountain View Telegraph
By Jan Eshleman
The proposed biomass energy plant, theoretically a "clean and renewable" source of energy, to be built south of Estancia raises concerns on several fronts. The plant itself promises to put "no more than 230 tons a year" of nitrogen oxides and "221 tons a year" of carbon monoxide into the New Mexico air, this according to Jack Maddox, vice president of Western Water and Power Production Limited, LLC.
In addition it would also contribute 40 tons of sulfur dioxide, 48.3 tons of volatile organic compounds (including formaldehyde) and 58.9 tons of particulate matter into the air. Incidentally 34.4 tons of the total particulate matter would measure 2.5 microns or less, small enough to infiltrate your lungs but not large enough to cough out. These numbers come from WWP's permit application from the New Mexico Department of Environment Air Quality Bureau. As of this writing, the Air Quality Bureau will probably issue a permit to Western Water and Power.
Despite the tonnage of pollutants these numbers still meet the current standards for allowable emissions. It is interesting to note that under this nation's Clean Air Act, because this plant will produce emissions above 100 tons it is classified as a "major source of pollution." The wording alone makes it difficult to see this as a "clean" source of energy.
Currently the primary source of fuel for the plant is to be piñon and juniper harvested from a 40,000-acre parcel of State Trust Land between Gran Quivira and Abo pueblo ruins. According to averages calculated by archaeologists in the State Land Office there could be 800 archaeological sites in this area. Western Water and Power acquired the lease during a public auction held Dec. 28, 2006.
Curiously, WWP was the only entity that was qualified to bid according to the parameters drawn up by the State Land Office, despite the fact that there were others who wanted to bid in this "public" auction. As for the fuel, piñon and juniper— piñon trees taller than three feet are generally 50-230 years old in New Mexico, and the U.S. Forest service recommends 200-year-rotation management for juniper.
This time frame seems to push the envelope on defining this type fuel as "renewable." Even the economic viability of this plant seems questionable. Phil Reese of Reese-Chambers runs an apparently successful 50-megawatt biomass plant near Los Angeles, Calif. He said many new biomass plant developers "grossly underestimate their fuel costs and seriously, seriously, seriously underestimate their operating expenses." He also said that if this plant cannot sell electricity at 9 cents per kilowatt hour "they'll never make it."
Two things to note here; half of California's biomass plants have closed due to economic inviability and Western Water and Power cannot charge more than 6.2 cents per kilowatt hour. Twice PNM rejected WWP's proposal quite likely because it did not seem economically viable. Enter Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Heather Wilson. All of a sudden the proposed plant now seems economically viable— hmmm ... For how long? Will it be built and never operate? Or maybe operate for a year? Will it really be able to provide the "long-term" jobs that they say it will? Will Torrance County be stuck with a steel dinosaur when they leave?
The other concern might be water. The proposed site of the plant is in a "critical management area" of the Estancia Basin. Yes they will be sharing existing water rights with the greenhouse and have currently applied for a diversion of 453.78 acre-feet for consumptive use. That 453.78 acre-feet would provide water for more than 900 homes. In a 2001-2002 brochure published by the Estancia Basin Regional Water Plan it was estimated that "there is only a 120-year water supply in the basin at current use, and accelerated new water rights applications (12,847 acre-feet since 1995) further threatens that supply."
The 50-megawatt plant in California uses 800 gallons of water per minute, this is evaporative use (consumptive use) in its cooling towers. This is called "wet" cooling. The current request for diversion of 453.78 acre-feet would provide Estancia's biomass plant a maximum of 250 gallons per minute. Granted, this is a 35-megawatt plant, not 50; granted some of the cooling will occur as excess steam is piped through the greenhouse for heating. Note too that the greenhouse doesn't need heating in much of the spring, none of the summer nor much of the fall, and WWP plans to keep the dust level down on the roads in and out of the plant with water trucks.
You could ask questions like why Western Water and Power is using "wet" cooling technology instead of "air" cooling as is being used in Arizona and Nevada. And you might ask why WWP is not using a catalytic converter that could reduce its overall emissions by nearly 50 percent. Another question you might ask is the logic behind burning trees that will emit tons of carbon monoxide (that becomes carbon dioxide when it hits the atmosphere) when it is those very trees that absorb carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen in return. In New Mexico that is science that third-graders learn!
Some have characterized juniper as "tumbleweed trees." Even if that is how you view them they still make oxygen that we as humans cannot live without. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has said "Deforestation is the second major way we increase atmospheric carbon dioxide." Second only to the burning of fossil fuels! In the current scenario it seems that the residents of the Estancia Valley are being asked to choose between having water and clean air or having a few new jobs for a while maybe. It seems the more important question to ask is why not generate this electricity by wind or solar power and not have to sacrifice water or clean air, but maybe a few jobs.
New Mexico Renewable Energy Act Needs Teeth
March 10, 2007
Op-ed, Albuquerque Journal
By Bud Latven
Designed to provide clean renewable energy for the state of New Mexico, the Renewable Energy Act (REA) of 2004 has a major loophole designed to allow biomass power plants to emit acid rain pollutants (nitrogen oxides) at a rate which is over 50% of typical coal fired plants in the US. In recent speeches Governor Richardson even touted biomass as a "clean" renewable source of energy. He may come to regret this ill-considered comment.
The REA defines "renewable" as energy generated by solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass. This leaves the general public with the false impression that biomass is a clean energy alternative. This is aggravated by a little known loophole in the act which is called the "zero to low emission technology" standard.
At first glance one would think that low emission technology means that energy producers are required to install the best available pollution control equipment to minimize toxic emissions. This is not the case. In reality there is no numeric standard set for what low emissions actually are so the Air Quality Bureau of the Environment Department simply regulates biomass under the same guidelines as a typical coal fired plant.
EPA's national emission tracking system estimates that an average coal fired plant in the US emits nitrogen oxides, the stuff of industrial pollution and acid rain, at a rate of 2.8 lbs per hour per megawatt of power. A recently proposed biomass plant for Estancia valley in central New Mexico, if built, plans to emit nitrogen oxides at a rate of 1.5 lbs per hour per megawatt. This is a rate over 53% of a typical coal fired plant. This plant plans to emit over 230 tons per year of nitrogen oxides, 220 tons of carbon monoxide and hundreds of tons of other pollutants like sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and small particulates.
This problem is not unique to New Mexico. The deceptive and meaningless "zero to low emission" qualification can also be found in other state renewable energy acts. It appears that this qualifier was intentionally designed to allow biomass to slip into the renewable energy portfolios of energy companies to help them meet their renewable energy requirements without actually being required to ensure their suppliers use the best available technology to reduce emissions. PNM can turn its cheek on "clean" and buy dirty energy from biomass while at the same time preach their "Sky Blue" program to the public.
To add insult to injury, biomass, like coal, is not only a dirty energy alternative, it siphons valuable funds away from truly clean energy alternatives like solar and wind.
Without a numeric standard, biomass electric producers have no incentive to install more costly pollution controls. Quite the contrary. The Estancia biomass plant appears to be designed to be just under the 250 tons per year threshold for stricter pollution controls. If the 250 ton per year threshold were exceeded, more costly pollution controls would be required by state law. Further, since the plant design is based on the consumption of thinned wood, if the plant decides in the future to burn other fuel types and exceed the threshold, it won't be required to upgrade the facility since it won't be cost effective. In effect they're allowed to produce the highest rate of pollution at the least cost. And you can blame them because they want to minimize costs and maximize profits.
It's really a legislative issue. True low emission technologies are available that would greatly reduce emissions; there's just no political will to require energy producers to install them.
It's a public deception, one where politicians pronounce their support for clean energy alternatives while management agencies like the Public Regulation Commission and the Environment Department know that biomass is a dirty little business. It's time our legislators get down to the work of putting some real teeth in the Renewable Energy Act and establish a true standard for low emission technology. If we lead the way, maybe other states will follow suit.
Energy plan is ill-conceived
December 21, 2006
Letters to Outlook, Albuquerque Journal
By Bud Latven
If you support the PNM Energy Rebate plan you may be unwittingly contributing to the future destruction of forest health and archaeological resources in New Mexico. You may also be contributing to the emission of large amounts of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and fine particulate pollution. This ill-conceived plan was developed with the encouragement of Governor Richardson in an attempt to spur the development of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar and the use of biomass as a renewable resource. This last is the main culprit.
A recent PNM newsletter sent out to all its customers talks about “a new 35 megawatt biomass power plant owned and operated by Western Water and Power (WWPP)… the first utility-scale biomass plant in New Mexico… to go into service in 2009 … located in Torrance County.” This plan says it will use forest thinnings as fuel from forest and rangelands to help “reduce hazardous fuels and restore ecological health.” What it doesn’t say is that a consuming need for these fuels will unalterably change the management of forest and rangeland from one of preservation and conservation to one of fuels management and production.
We have already seen this in a recent objection to a USFS plan to exploit 17,000 acres in the Manzano Mountains to fuel this same proposed biomass plant. Local residents joined hands and strongly opposed the USFS management plan to cut 33 miles of fire fuelbreaks and 17,000 acres for thinning projects to protect about a dozen homes. It was a blatant attempt to use the Bush Healthy Forests initiative to exploit forest products at the expense of forest health. Local residents forced the Forest Service’s hand on this issue and they reluctantly backed off.
With this setback, the WWPP is now looking to purchase at auction 40,000 acres of pinon and juniper on state lands directly adjacent to Gran Quivira National Monument south of Mountainair, New Mexico. This land is covered with archaeological ruins including full-sized pueblos and many rock art sites. Calls to the Salinas National Monument and the State Historic Preservation Division showed that neither agency was informed about the proposed State Land Office auction set for December 28 this year.
An upcoming state mandate will require PNM to produce a percentage of its energy from renewable sources by 2010 so now PNM is pushing the biomass plant concept without giving serious consideration as to where these fuels will actually come from. They are leaving that up to the state and federal agencies who are now getting pressure to produce fuels to help PNM meet the state mandate through biomass use. This is shaping up to be a major conflict between the maintenance of forest and rangeland health and the need for commercial products. Environmental lawsuits are sure to follow.
So if you are supporting the PNM Energy rebate plan, you may be in effect supporting the mismanagement of our forests, the possible destruction of archaeological sites and the pollution of the air we breathe. The State Government, PNM and the biomass industry would like you to believe that biomass fuel use is a benign healthy alternative to fossil fuels like solar and wind but when you look at the actual effects to the environment, it’s anything but that. And we have to live with the results.