Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Mess We're In

Dan McKenna was guest on Local Bias June 25. He owns and operates Principle Profits Inc. of Amherst. Dan is a financial adviser and invests in socially responsible stocks and bonds for his clients. Dan remarked how his new clients often ask how much money they will lose in order to sleep with a clean conscience at night. According to Dan, responsible companies outperform other companies in the long term. They have higher productivity, morale, and retention because of their culture and smart business practices.

When I originally booked Dan, it was well before the mayoral race in Greenfield, and the bio-mass controversy had yet to gain much notice. In order to accommodate Bill Martin on Local Bias, I was able to bump Dan to June 25. I had intended to talk with Dan about the national economy, but he suggested we talk about bio-mass because he has done a lot of research into the renewable energy field. He stated during the interview that the proposed plant for Greenfield was a poor idea.

The proponents of the plant have used the McNeil Power Plant in Burlington Vermont as an example of a successful bio-mass burning plant. Dan pointed out that they don't use only wood, they also use gas. This plant is owned by the municipality so they don't have the same profit motive to burn construction and demolition material down the road when the cost of green wood escalates.

Mathew Wolfe of Madera Energy, remarked at the ZBA hearing on the 25th that because the project was receiving federal clean energy credits, they were precluded from burning C & D waste. I'm curious how long they would be prohibited from doing so. Madera Energy plans to sell the credits in order to help leverage value for possible investors. Several years down the road after the market changes for wood chips and the credits have been paid for, is there any statutory reason they can't apply for a special permit to burn other cheaper materials?

Presently, the Commonwealth does not allow the incineration of construction and demolition debris. Will economic pressure cause that policy to be reversed?

To my mind, the plant's disadvantages outweigh any pluses. It seems inefficient compared to burning wood for heat, provides few jobs and may scare away good companies, such as Applied Dynamics. It seems out of scale with our town. The zoning by laws were created for a reason. For the ZBA to allow an exemption in this case is to show a callous disregard for the law which they are obligated to follow, and the needs of the neighbors, who will doubtless find their quality of life diminished.

We actually have an excess of energy supply facilities in the Pioneer Valley. These are not being used to support the regional grid because of a lack of demand.

The health effects are also worrisome. The smoke stack height may not be tall enough to disperse the particulate matter during periods of weather inversions in our valley. My understanding is that the weather data comes from Westover Air Force Base. I don't necessarily trust the modeling used to justify the plant.

Burning trees is not carbon neutral. Burning trees releases carbon into the air. Five hundred thousand pounds a year of green wood a year would be cut down to feed this plant, so there would be fewer trees every year to sequester the carbon being released. The oceans have been absorbing such a large amount that the chemistry of the oceans is changing and may not be able to support life as we know it. The acidification of the oceans leads to calcium being leached out of coral reefs, the nurseries of the oceans.

The fact that this plant is primarily viable to investors because of clean energy tax credits is an example of the failure of big government to fashion solutions that really make sense. They throw our tax money at problems and often exacerbate them by rewarding the very conditions that lead to the problem in the first place.

As a people, we have to learn how to consume fewer resources. We have to learn how to make do with less. In my view, The idea that we are going to benefit from this plant, beyond a short term burst of construction, is outweighed by the long term damage it will cause.


  1. Drew,
    Thanks for your insightful words on this BioMess debacle! I totally agree that it's Big Goverments failure to be effective after throwing huge amounts of money at the problem that is only exacerbating and only making things worse......what a MESS. I find myself seriously disapointed in the leadership from local to state to fedral government. More bad leadership decisions that will adversely affect our planet and our quality of life, and then leave the MESS for our descendants to clean up. Shame on them!

  2. Drew, thank you for an excellent report...better than our local paper has pulled together, so far.

    I have not decided that biomass is 100% a bad idea -- but I was particularly interested in the distinctions you made between this project and McNeil.

    I have heard that Applied Dynamics is putting pressure on the town for a continuation of a tax deal they received, and the biomass issue is just an excuse. Is there any truth to this rumor?

  3. I had not heard the rumor about Applied Dynamics.
    The ZBA voted 5-0 in favor of Mathew Wolfe this morning. I'm not surprised. I don't think any of the board members have ill will towards the opponents. They were simply following the dictates of their personal world view. I believe they sincerely feel this project will benefit Greenfield. The debate isn't over and I hope we don't see the same level of rancor which poisoned our community concerning Wal-Mart.
    None-the-less, I intend to continue inviting guests on Local Bias to inform the public about this issue.