Biomass: On the Learning Curve

Without much of a track record, the biomass industry polishes its pitch in Greenfield.

Comments (15)
Thursday, July 16, 2009

As the green energy economy takes its first shaky steps, questions arise about what kind of energy is really green. Those are not just intellectual questions.

In the Valley, where four new power plants and an expansion of another are currently being proposed, questions about water consumption and the effects on forest health and air quality of the plants proposing to burn wood are serious ones for residents and town governments.

The communities that are forced to deal with those questions have little go to on except what the developers tell them. What they don't know is that the person who makes the promises may not be the one who sees the project through, especially in the case of a new industry like biomass.

New England has been hopping with speculative biomass-to-electricity ventures for the past few years. The air has been filled with talk and money, or agreements about money—private money and taxpayer money. A case in point is Tamarack Energy, the company that previously employed Matthew Wolfe, developer of the Pioneer Renewable Energy project in Greenfield. Wolfe, now principal of his own company, Cambridge-based Madera Energy, is proposing a 47-megawatt woodburning power plant for Greenfield, and has already received significant public assistance for preliminary work on it: a loan of $250,000 from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, an agency with a mandate to help build the state's renewable energy portfolio.

But, as the history of his earlier employer shows, getting a biomass plant designed and permitted is a far cry from putting it solidly on the road to completion.

Beginning in 2007, Tamarack greased the skids for a 30-megawatt biomass project in Watertown, Conn. called Watertown Renewable Power, with Wolfe helping with public relations in the early stages. The project got its local permits and a 15-year deal to sell electricity to the regional utility, Connecticut Light and Power.

Then this past April, Tamarack—the company that had made itself so well known to local officials and members of the Watertown Economic Development Commission that many of them had outspokenly gone to bat for it—sold the Watertown project for an undisclosed amount and left its supporters in Watertown to deal with its buyer, Energy Investors Funds (EIF), a multi-billion-dollar international energy venture capital firm with offices in Boston, New York and San Francisco. (EIF also owns, through subsidiaries, the Berkshire Power natural gas-fired electric plant in Agawam.)

Around the time Tamarack sold the Watertown project, its corporate parent, Boston-based Haley Aldrich, got out of the biomass business. As of this writing, construction had not even begun on the Watertown project.

Also in 2007, Tamarack, with Wolfe as project manager, laid the groundwork for a biomass plant to be built at the Crane industrial park in Pittsfield at an estimated cost of $100 to $175 million—in that case, too, with preliminary help from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC) in the form of a $249,900 unsecured loan for "predevelopment activities," which included not only environmental and traffic studies but costs associated with permit acquisitions and "outreach."

In March of this year, however, Tamarack sold the project for one dollar to people connected with the industrial park, and pulled out.

In Greenfield, Wolfe is in the thick of "educating" local residents—according to his own calculations, he's held over 100 meetings— and obtaining city permits to build the Pioneer Renewable plant, whch he expects would be fully operational in 2013.

The Advocate found Wolfe perfectly straightforward about the fact that he has never seen a biomass plant through to completion.

"I have not," he said when we put the question to him. But he noted that his technical advisor is John Irving, who helped construct and now serves as manager of McNeil Station in Burlington, Vt., a wood-fired power plant that has been in operation since 1981.

Wolfe was also frank about the fact that he needs financing for the Greenfield plant. "I don't have the $250 million needed to build this," he said late in June, "so I have to do this thing going out and convincing investors to help build it." Wolfe said he also needs a power sales agreement to help assure profitability for the project.

Will Wolfe continue as the developer for the Pioneer Renewable Energy project, or will Greenfield eventually find itself dealing with a venture capital firm that may or may not take an interest in the effects of the plant's operations on the community?

"I assume that I will be involved with the project moving into the future," Wolfe told the Advocate. "As I have said a number of times, I will have to bring in an outside investor for the construction/operation financing and the role that I continue to play will be dictated by the terms of that investment. That said, I would assume that Madera Energy would continue to play an integral role."

Wolfe brings his proposal to Greenfield at a time when—in spite of the existence of a few functioning biomass plants such as McNeil Station, and the insistence of Massachusetts state officials that biomass credits generated in-state be added to the commonwealth's energy portfolio post-haste—the industry is still in a speculative stage. That's not helped by the economic downturn, which was reportedly a factor in Tamarack's withdrawal from its projects. The carrot of federal assistance (such as production tax credits and accelerated depreciation deductions) hangs enticingly in front of the developers of these plants, but much of that clicks in after the plants are operational. So while Wolfe is taking his chance on the capital market, Greenfield would be taking a chance on him.

Comments (15)
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In an informal poll taken last week, 75% of those waiting on Beacon Field for the Greenfield fireworks display indicated they are against Mr. Wolfe's biomass burner plan. Several local businesses have expressed opposition to the special permit Mr. Wolfe hopes to use to erect the massive smokestack, woodchipper, furnace and cooling towers in an area zoned for light industry. In the weeks since abutters were informed of the biomass plan, opposition has grown steadily, despite the many months of wheeling and dealing that took place between Mr,. Wolfe and certain Greenfield town employees and board members associated with the recently defeated former mayor, Christine Forgey. Our desire to keep Greenfield free from this major polluter is motivated by love for the local community and landscape. We will continue to resist the planning, construction, or operation of any speculative biomass burning power generation venture with all our resources for as long as it takes.
Posted by Dwayne on 7.14.09 at 11:44
This scares the heck out of me! Why doesn't it scare the heck out of Greenfield town officials? And why hasn't Greenfield's own newspaper, The Recorder, looked into this as deeply? Something stinks and it isn't coming from a smokestack...yet.
Posted by Linda on 7.14.09 at 12:03
And it doesn't have to be biomass. This sort of thing happens all over the state with fossil fuel plants as well. Same playbook. So predictable. They poach desperate towns and exploit them,
Posted by Jenna on 7.14.09 at 19:20
I believe Mr. Wolfe has already stated that he will sell the plant when it is constructed. Then he will take millions of our "clean" energy subsidies back with him to Cambridge and leave us with clearcuts and another dirty smokestack.
Posted by Chris on 7.15.09 at 9:38
Let's face it. This industrial incinerator will never be built. The opposition to it is too great and growing stronger every day. Each rubber-stamped approval will be litigated for years. If that fails, the community will still oppose the plant by creative non-violence and direct action. Blockades, lock-downs, hunger strikes, civil disobedience, paper monkey-wrenching, massive public opposition, and every other tactic used by the civil rights, environmental justice, and no-nukes movements will be brought to bear. This Wolfe guy has picked the wrong town and the wrong region to locate his dirty biomass incinerator. We will ruin his bank account and his life. And we will enjoy it as a strong community. Together we are more powerful than him and his secret investors. They all have names and and addresses and will be targeted for boycotts and direct actions. The people of Greenfield have a different vision for what this town needs and what will attract people to this region. This vision does not include dirty polluting biomass incinerator. Greenfield is green, not brown, and Wolfe is just a little lying parasite and we have the perfect medicine to take care of him. It is the antibody called organizing and self-defense. Strong medicine against this dirty biomass virus. I am looking forward to this fight, as are hundreds and hundreds of others. We will defend ourselves, our children, our loved ones, our public lands and forests from this carpet-bagger from Cambidge.
Posted by Dan the Rednose on 7.15.09 at 10:42
Informal polls are useless and without scientific merit.
Posted by Take Stats 101 on 7.15.09 at 15:55
Greenfield officials were bought and paid for a long time ago.
Posted by Jack on 7.16.09 at 6:44
I see the same 400 people who show up for Greenfield meetings and bombard the website when every they put a story online have also found the Advocate site worth spreading rumors and propaganda on. I was at those fireworks on Beacon field and I can say I saw nobody conducting an informal poll or a poll at all. Greenfield officials are largely volunteer and elected volunteer citizens who don't get paid or collect benifits for their services. Suggesting that they do is slanderous. But since the same people who fight this project are the same people who openly make personal threats toward our public servants in public meetings I'm not surprised they think so little of the laws of our land. Stop the hate and maybe people will rally around the cause. When you have hate for your opposition you become blind with it and you do unspeakable things in the name of war and victory.
Posted by Dwane St.Marie on 7.16.09 at 7:49
I'd like to thank Mr.St.Marie for his heartfelt comments and good advice about stopping the hate. (I do believe the opposition to biomass in Greenfield is broadly based and shared by many who can't make it to the ZBA meetings or newspaper comment sites!) Town officials thought they were doing a good thing when they signed on to biomass and Mr. Wolfe is trying, like many of us, to make a living and be successful in his work. Current science does not support claims that biomass burning is safe or environmentally friendly, however, and the attempt by democratic operatives in Boston to foist this plant on a politically weaker area was the first blow struck. Unfortunately the public was brought in late to the process and felt like this idea was being forced upon them. The flawed ZBA process reinforced this feeling. People who had worked behind the scenes for years to promote the plant resented the last minute interferrence of abutters. None of this changes the fact that our work to stop this plant will become more powerful as we have take the advice offered by Mr. St.Marie. Strong work to stop biomass is complimented by compassion and friendliness.
Posted by Local Biomass Opponent on 7.16.09 at 21:59
The money involved in biomass plants is amazing and would make Bernard Madoff salivate. Instead of rotting in jail, he could be making even better returns on biomass plants, legally. Remember how people said the Madoff investors should have known something was off when they were making annual returns on investment of 20%? Well, compare this with Russell Biomass and numbers Stephen Kaiser calculated from page 13 of a letter from their consultant, Tighe & Bond, to Massachusetts DEP dated May 4, 2007. Russell Biomass would make an annual return on investment of 24%. And guess what, boys and girls, 41% of that profit would be from public subsidies, extra credit, from you and me! Total profit over 30 years would be $1 billion. Annual profit would be $36 million, or $3 million every month. Not too shabby!!! No wonder they are pushing so relentlessly to get their plant approved, no matter what the consequences to anyone or anything else.
Posted by GreenEngineer on 7.17.09 at 5:21
I havent been to the greenfield meetings, but i can tell you this, those plants are far from "green" except for the money involved. And I for one object to this crap being dumped into the air, and spread all over via prevailing winds, including down the CT river. These plants are not carbon neutral, produce a miniscule percentage of electricity, but yes, they do consume massive ammounts of wood. Lets invest in some real technology, not this hooplah for money.
Posted by Weather01089 on 7.17.09 at 7:01
What they probably will produce mostly is greenbacks in the form of tax dollar subsidies for the owners/promoters - they make little economic sense on their own, without these subsidies - and that may be where the real "profit" is.
Posted by Dave on 7.17.09 at 7:28
Thank you Valley Advocate for this article. It's so much more informative than what gets printed in the Recorder. This looks like real journalism to me. I hope people in Greenfield will read this issue of your paper.
Posted by concerned on 7.17.09 at 20:01
"Biomass," clever, sounds clean and green. These things are about "the deal" and who benefits from "the deal" and not what's good for the area. An area that already has poor air quality this is what the politicians of Greenfield come up with? A smokestack? One thing is clear. Boston types always seem to successfully pick places ike Greenfield because they know they can get over on above their pay scale politicians.
Posted by Orange Julius on 7.23.09 at 8:13
Lets see, They are going to cut down our forest ,which absorbs the Carbon and other pollutants ,and these forest will take hundreds of years to regenerate ,if they ever do ,and they have the nerve to call this renewable green energy ,The law needs to be changed this is not renewable energy this is burning the wood before it has a chance to become coal but with almost all the same pollution that is produced by burning coal---To rape our forest is a crime,to pollute our air is a crime ,to call this clean energy and get government subsidies (our tax payers money )is the biggest crime of all !
Posted by barbara carchidi on 8.5.09 at 5:32



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