More than a century ago, our ancestors had a simple plan for dealing
with industrial waste: they simply flushed it into the river or let it
settle into the ground. Problem solved. What could be easier and
more sensible? No one had a clue at the time that there were
unintended consequences that would involve billions of dollars in
cleanup schemes within a few decades.
The same short-sighted thinking is at work in Northern Michigan today,
where Traverse City Light & Power is considering a plan to build three
woodchip-burning power plants which would each produce 10 megawatts of
electricity. The reasoning goes that we have plenty of trees here in
Northern Michigan, so what could be more simple and sensible than
burning them to power our hot tubs and electric lawn mowers?
Advocates of this plan claim that wise forest management principles
will be employed to insure that Northern Michigans forests arent
irreparably harmed. The waste wood of current timber-cutting
projects will serve as fuel.
Oh really? Are there really tens of thousands of tons of waste wood
piled up out there in the forest? Or is that a euphemism (like
“biomass“) for clear-cutting trees? Consumers Power is planning to
build a biomass plant in Bay City that will consume 100,000 tons of
wood chips per year. Wonder where they‘ll get all that wood,
considering the Saginaw River Valley was logged off 100 years ago?
The problem for Northern Michigan is cumulative. With new biomass
plants being considered for Mancelona, Rogers City, Bay City and
Marquette, not to mention the current power plant in Cadillac which
also burns woodchips, at what point do we destroy the natural beauty
and resources of our region for all time?
Jeff Gibbs, a documentary filmmaker who has been studying the human
impact on our forests for the past decade and is an opponent of
biomass, is circulating photos of clear-cuts in the U.P., where
residents are trading their natural heritage and the beauty of the
region for a handful of jobs. Apparently, the trees that brought
poetry to the hearts of John Muir, J.R.R. Tolkien and Joyce Kilmer are
just waste wood up that way.
Gibbs and other opponents dispute the idea that burning trees is a
long-term solution for Michigans energy needs. All the trees in
Michigan wouldnt power our great state for a single year, he notes.
Biomass burning is a dead end even if you were willing to pollute
and put out more CO2 than coal, oil and natural gas. Why do we have
Good question. The whole idea of burning trees for electricity as a
renewable resource has the stability of a compound fracture. At the
recent climate conference in Copenhagen, delegates agreed that the
developed world should be paying Third World countries to save their
forests from the axe and the saw. It was universally agreed that we
should be planting trees, not cutting them down.
Yes, forests are a renewable resource for a generation or two -- but
after that they run sterile and thin for lack of natural regeneration.
Forests are like any crop -- they need fertilizer in the form of
dead, decomposing trees returning their nutrients to the soil.
Consider this: our forests, lakes, rivers and beaches are the life
raft that keeps Northern Michigans tourist economy afloat.
Yet if we know anything at all about human nature, its that once you
let something like this out of the bag, there never seems to be a
Stop button. You want drab, dreary scenery? This is the way forward
as one biomass plant on top of another scrambles for a dwindling
Do we want the end of wildlife corridors and our recreation-based
industry that encourages snowmobilers, hunters, fishermen and the
silent sports of kayaking, hiking and cross-country skiing? Then
take a drive from Detroit to Chicago on I-94 to see what the future
holds. Once, this ugly stretch of southern Michigan was a vast forest
where it was said that a squirrel could travel from Lake Michigan to
Lake Erie without touching the ground. That would seem to be the
fate of Northern Michigans forests once competing power plants start
rendering our forests into biomass.
A better model for TCL&P would be the Stoney Corners Wind Project
which just went fully operational in Missaukee County. This wind farm
of nine turbines is generating 19,000 megawatts of renewable energy
without adding any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. It‘s a project
that every citizen of Missaukee County can point to with pride.
We certainly have some high hills around Traverse City, and one can
only imagine there are some cash-strapped farmers in the area willing
to harvest the wind. What we need is a renewable energy plan that
offers a sense of pride and progress for TCL&P‘s customers, not the
destruction of our natural resources and tourist economy.