Washington View: Energy wasted on opposing biomass

By Don Brunell, Columbian business commentator

Published:

 
photoDon Brunell recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business.

As we look ahead in 2013, the cost and availability of electricity will become more important to our families, farmers, merchants and factories.

Washington is blessed with abundant low-cost hydropower, which supplies 75 percent of our electricity. But low-cost reliable energy supplies are dwindling, and power rates are climbing, even as our dependence on electricity increases. That impacts jobs and family budgets.

Millions of Washington homes have computers, large, power-hungry televisions and multiple electronic devices.

Our major industries, which use massive amounts of electricity, located here because of the availability of low-cost electricity. Boeing, with its 85,000 Washington workers, has an advantage here because our state's industrial power rates are approximately one-third those of France, where Airbus has its assembly plants.

Washington is one of the world's leading agriculture and food processing regions. Farms, cold storage warehouses and food processing plants draw large electric loads, and as they expand, so will their power requirements.

Hydroelectric capacity is diminishing as dams divert more water around powerhouses for salmon migration. Two older, smaller dams were breached last year, and some want to take down the lower Snake River dams, which produce enough electricity for a city the size of Portland. How will we replace that affordable energy?

Coal is economical and generates nearly half the world's electricity, but anti-coal activists are determined to eliminate its use. In Oregon, the Boardman coal-fired generating plant is closed, and in Washington, TransAlta's coal-powered generating facility is being phased out.

Both natural gas and biomass were touted as replacements, but activists have done a series of stunning reversals on energy policy that have rational people scratching their heads.

For years, anti-coal protesters heralded natural gas as the cleanest of all fossil fuels and a perfect bridge for America's transition to renewable energy. On the East Coast, the Sierra Club partnered with several natural gas companies, secretly taking $26 million from them to attack the companies' major competitor -- coal.

When the deal was revealed, Sierra Club officials apologized and called it a mistake -- but apparently not enough of a mistake to give the money back. Instead, they turned on their former allies, launching a national campaign that called natural gas "as dirty as coal."

Shifting allegiances

Biomass burns sawmill waste, forest debris and agricultural waste instead of oil, gas or coal. Anti-fossil fuel advocates supported biomass, including it as an acceptable renewable energy source in Initiative 937, approved by Washington voters in 2006. Now, many of those same folks oppose biomass, saying biomass is "dirtier than coal."

The attacks on biomass are particularly puzzling. It enjoys broad support from state officials known for their commitment to environmental stewardship.

Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire touts biomass as "an incredible opportunity to heat our homes, power our cities and fight climate change." Democratic Gov-elect Jay Inslee, who campaigned for Initiative 937's passage, supported biomass energy throughout his congressional career and gubernatorial campaign. State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, also a Democrat, calls biomass a "very attractive, renewable alternative" to fossil fuels.

Democratic Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber made biomass a central focus of his state's energy plan, citing its contribution to healthy forests, rural jobs and renewable energy. Even the Environmental Protection Agency reconfirmed the probability that biomass energy from sustainably managed forests does not contribute to climate change.

One by one, activists are targeting any energy sources that are more affordable and abundant than wind and solar. If their strategy works, it will drive the costs of energy up for families and energy-intensive business.

It is a story of the ever-moving goal posts or the hapless Charlie Brown who trusts in vain that this time Lucy won't pull away the football.

It would be funny if it weren't so serious.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce.