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Biomass: On the Learning Curve

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

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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.

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