Biomass Plants Frequently Cited for Environmental Violations

Published September 11, 2012

Biomass power plants regularly violate clean air and water laws, the Wall Street Journal reports, with 85 of 107 biomass plants operating at the start of 2012 having received citations from federal or state regulators during the past five years for violating clean air or water laws.

Is Biomass Truly Green?

Renewable energy mandates and subsidies typically include biomass among the “green” energy sources eligible for favorable government treatment.

The Wall Street Journal noted the federal government gave Blue Lake Power $5.4 million under a federal program to promote environmentally superior alternatives to fossil fuels. However, Blue Lake’s biomass power plant emitted so much malodorous and unsightly brown smoke that several hundred residents fled the area. 

“It’s goddamn hard to stay in compliance” with clean air laws, Blue Lake co-owner Kevin Leary told the Journal

Industry Downplays Violations

The Biomass Power Association (BPA), an industry trade group, said the Journal article does not provide a complete or accurate portrayal of the industry. 

“Significant violations of federal and state environmental laws are neither commonplace nor acceptable to the members of Biomass Power Association,” Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the industry group, told Environment & Climate News

“I take issue with the overall characterization of an entire industry based on one company and more minor incidents at a handful of other facilities,” Cleaves said, quoting a letter he wrote to the Journal

Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center, said many biomass operations produce power without clean air violations. 

“Biomass is used at virtually every timber mill across the country. Air quality around these plants is often excellent,” Myers said. 

Expensive Energy Source

The 2009 federal stimulus handed out $11 billion in taxpayer funding for renewable power, including $270 million to biomass power plants. Biomass and other renewable power industries receive additional taxpayer funding under a wide variety of state and federal programs. Despite such assistance, commercial biomass plants still cannot survive without the promise of future taxpayer assistance.

“Only in very rare circumstances does biomass power make any economic sense,” said Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News. “These circumstances are primarily small operations where excess material can augment on-site power.”

Myers notes biomass is expected to be more expensive than other sources of energy. 

“According to the Energy Information Administration projections for 2017, biomass is expected to be about twice as expensive as natural gas, slightly more expensive than nuclear, but is much less expensive than solar panels,” said Myers. 

“For timber mills and other companies with an easily accessible supply of fuel, biomass is much less expensive. As a standalone source of energy it is more expensive than most,” he added.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.