Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Biomass Issue Becomes a Public Relations 'Biomess' for The Evergreen State College

Above: Evergreen's iconic campus clocktower expresses its opinion in late October.

by Janine Gates

The Evergreen State College (TESC) was awarded a $3.7 million grant in early October from the Washington State Department of Commerce for the construction of a new biomass gasification plant. It was the highest amount of any project awarded by the Governor's $31 million grant under Commerce's "Jobs Act" to create jobs and for energy cost savings.

The grant is a partial amount needed for the college to install a biomass gasification plant that will allow the college to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and replace failing steam converters, steam valves and condensate piping. TESC estimates that the facility will cost about $13.9 million to build.

Meanwhile, the college is still studying the feasibility of biomass gasification in an effort to heat its campus buildings and produce hot water, and be carbon neutral, by 2020.

Governor Chris Gregoire and the Washington State Department of Commerce announced Evergreen's selection along with 45 other public school facilities across the state. The total cost for all of the projects is almost $88 million, including more than $52 million of non-state funding. An estimated 870 jobs will be created by this construction spending.

“This is a great example of Washington state getting our economy moving in the right direction,” said Gregoire in a press release issued October 7. “Communities throughout our state will see these grants pay immediate dividends in jobs and energy savings, and we’ll gain long term benefits through quality improvements and cost savings in our public school buildings.”

According to Scott Morgan, TESC's Sustainability Coordinator, TESC asked for $5 million, the maximum allowed. "The grant is not quite one-fourth of the total amount we’re anticipating that we’ll need, so it’s conditional on our ability to find the remainder of the funds necessary."

Last year, the TESC Clean Energy Committee funded one-third of the $375,000 cost of the biomass feasibility research, drawing upon funds from a self-imposed student fee. The committee is made up of five students, the director of student activities and facilities, and a faculty member. Another third of the funding came from the college and another third came from the state legislature.

Controversy about the issue has plagued TESC ever since.

Above: Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia.

"We'll See If It's In There"

The Evergreen State College's $10 million request to build the gasification facility is currently in front of Governor Chris Gregoire as part of her operating, capital, and transportation budget. The budget is due to be released the week of December 12.

"We'll see if it's in there," says Steve Trotter, TESC's budget director. "If we don't get the money, we could receive or try other forms of money, such as floating revenue bonds to finance the project for energy savings, a straight appropriation from the Legislature, grants and/or private funding that could generate annual revenue streams. It could be very complicated."

A typical capital project goes through three independent phases: feasibility, design and construction. All three are usually dealt with at different times, but this project is unique as it is an energy saving project and part of a larger campus wide goal of working toward carbon neutrality, says Trotter.

Last spring, the college contracted with McKinstry, an energy services company, to pull together a feasibility study, which includes finding financial backing for the project. The funding portion of the study formulates the original basis of the college's 2011-13 capital budget request submitted to the governor last summer.

This upcoming legislative session, which begins in January, will be a long one, scheduled to end in April. "The tough part in all capital financing projects is that the legislative funding timeframe is elongated," says Trotter.

McKinstry's entire feasibility study is due to the college in early December. Also due soon from McKinstry is the pre-final energy services proposal for the project. This will be submitted to the Department of Commerce to remain eligible for the grant.

Regarding the state grant, many have questioned how it could be received while a feasibility study is still underway. TESC communications director Jason Wettstein said last week, "We do not know if it can be used because we do not know if the biomass gasification idea meets our key criteria of sustainability and getting us closer to carbon neutrality....we don't know if we are going to actually do the project."

"We have consistently, at least since June, indicated that we will be seeking funding on a parallel track with this feasibility study...We get that the Commerce grant could be interpreted to convey progress on one track...while saying nothing at all about the essential, primary criterion of whether this project meets our intent of a closer to carbon neutral campus. I have heard it restated by my colleagues from the sustainability council again and again: we will return this grant if it does not help us meet the goal of approaching carbon neutrality."

TESC Board of Trustees Receive 'Biomess' Update - Literally

At a recent community meeting, the formal decision making structure for the biomass project was clarified: TESC's Sustainability Council will make a recommendation to TESC vice-presidents, who in turn will make a recommendation to President Les Purce. Ultimately, the final decision lies with the TESC Board of Trustees.

The TESC Board of Trustees met last Wednesday, November 17, to discuss their upcoming capital projects, including the biomass gasification project.

Taking college president Les Purce and board members by surprise during public comment time, two people approached the table and threw two, big, white garbage bags full of loose, wet wood chips onto the board table, according to observers.

A male chip dumper is heard to say on the audio recording of the meeting, "We really want you to understand what's before you," and the bags were dumped. The dumpers did not say if they were affiliated with any organization opposing the biomass facility.

"I was astounded at how fast they did it - how destructive," said meeting observer Michelle Morris, a TESC Masters in Environmental Science student. "It was a big mess - wet woodchips - it looked more like compost and leaves. I'm glad it didn't mess up the electrical system." Morris says she encouraged members in the audience to clean up the mess after the demonstration, but they declined. The meeting continued without further incident and the biomass stayed on the table.

"It looks like very rich mulch," a board member is later heard to say.

"I'm not associated with any of them. I've never been a 'take-it-to-the-streets' activist but I don't like the proposed biomass facility either. I would like the Board of Trustees to get more input from the scientific community, the neighborhood communities, and other stakeholders that will be affected by the facility's operations," Morris said later. Morris has finished her graduate coursework and is working on her thesis on the question of whether or not burning biomass is carbon neutral.

According to Wettstein, the board meeting was not a work session or at a decision making juncture.

According to TESC, Board of Trustee approval for construction of the project will be requested only if additional funding can be identified, if the project is deemed financially feasible, and if the project is consistent with TESC's strategic and master plans and their stated sustainability goals.

TESC's Sustainability Council and Public Process

The college’s sustainability council, composed of the director of sustainability, four TESC administrators, a faculty member, and a student representative, will be reviewing the biomass feasibility information, along with facilities staff, and will recommend to senior staff whether the facility is consistent with college goals and interests. Preserving the Commerce grant will likely require a decision by the staff and senior management in the next few months.

In response to the public's perception of the lack of transparency in the biomass issue, Wettstein admits that the college's sustainability council does not have a process for decisions.

"So far, much of what we have been doing is public involvement, however well or badly some of it has come off. And what we have done will be supplemented by more engagement to come, especially as the feasibility study comes to conclusion.

"Intense energy and perhaps a majority of our time has been afforded to engagement and responses to community members, possibly to the detriment of actually outlining a process for coming to a decision. We have been absolutely swamped by the questions of how to engage and communicate. A timeline and process is something we must create and communicate, and from my perspective, one of the main reasons we must nail it down is that it is a key element in achieving real transparency in this....meetings without conveying process or new data the council may be learning about for making the decision leaves a void and we have to fill it."

The council appears to be in organizational disarray. Several council workgroups addressing various TESC sustainability practices such as transportation and food systems dissolved last year when staff had to abandon meetings to attend urgent meetings on cutting the budget.

"Unfortunately, the Office of Sustainability got caught in that pickle of budget cuts and statewide hiring freezes," according to Steve Trotter, TESC's budget director and Sustainability Council co-chair. Even the position of the director of sustainability is three-fourths time. To help compensate, there are student group organizations doing their own thing, says Trotter. The college has also created five new student fellowship positions to help advance the college's sustainability practices.

Steve Trotter says the anticipated McKinstry feasibility report will reveal whether the project is a 'go or a no-go' as it relates to technology, finances, and available fuel streams. "When we receive that, we'll get into the hard conversations that will center on how the proposed project could contribute toward Evergreen's goal of carbon neutrality," says Trotter.

Trotter says that Evergreen prefers a 30 mile radius fuel stream from local sources. "The other part that's a struggle is that we have little control over forest management practices."

Trotter says he expects to publish the results of McKinstry's report, or at least an executive summary, online as soon as it becomes available.

The next meeting for the Sustainability Council is Monday, Dec. 6, from 3:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. in SEM II A1105 at Evergreen.

Local Voices Provide Varied Perspectives on Biomass

For the Northwest, biomass generally means forest materials resulting from harvest, pre-commercial thinning and fire reduction programs, sawdust, bark chips - basically, various forms of cellulose. There is no consistent definition of biomass in state code.

The use of biomass to produce electricity is an issue of national debate and whether is it sustainable, affordable, or carbon neutral. There are currently about 12 - 15 biomass facility projects, ranging in size, throughout Washington.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is just starting a $450,000 study to determine biomass supply and demand. The University of Washington is just completing a study for the Olympic Peninsula that should be published next month.

Several community meetings have met around local biomass issues.

For months, TESC student Dani Madrone has actively, and almost single-handedly, reached out to local community organizations and individuals at multiple local events, meetings and online conversations via local environmental list-serves to facilitate the gathering and sharing of information, research and opinions about Evergreen's proposed biomass facility. Her efforts have been appreciated by many community members. Madone, a senior, is studying advanced chemistry, renewable energy systems and community organizing.

TESC's Clean Energy committee is currently coordinated by Madrone, who is paid a student leadership stipend through student activities for her role. She admits that the student fee was spent last year on the biomass gasification research after having a poorly attended student forum.

Madrone also holds a paid fellowship position with the Office of Sustainability, one of the five positions recently created by TESC, to promote TESC's sustainability practices. Although it is not her responsibility to notify the Olympia and Thurston County communities of official community meetings, her dual roles with the college have made her position on the biomass facility issue confusing, making her a target for some biomass opponents who feel she is advocating the project for the college.

Nothing is further from the truth, says Madrone.

"The work that I do is out of my own interest, and I am very firm about speaking my mind, doing what I think needs to be done for the community to be engaged, and encouraging the school to define its process and public relations...I am blessed to be paid to do work that I choose to do, and that it is of value to the community," Madrone adds.

TESC has held two official community meetings on campus, one in July, and one in late October, both of which were poorly attended.

Above: Southwest Neighborhood Association president Barb Day speaks with TESC Communications director Jason Wettstein at a campus community meeting in July.

Economic Questions

At a recent meeting of the Olympia Economics Club, local economist Jim Lazar gave a presentation analyzing the high cost of TESC's biomass facility.

According to Lazar, thirty one states have mandated utilities to have renewable standards such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, wave, current, and hydropower. Washington has a mandate to have 15% of its standards renewable by 2020, and excludes existing or new hydropower.

In his analysis, Lazar showed how expensive a carbon reduction method the TESC facility is - assuming that biomass gasification is carbon neutral. He says biomass is several times more expensive than other options in terms of dollars spent per ton of CO2 reduction.

"Take away carbon neutrality and the whole deal becomes a money - not to mention environmental - loser from society’s point of view." Lazar expressed concern that the economics of TESC's proposal, with data provided by McKinstry, has not been verified by the college or anyone else.

"I would advise TESC to consider all the costs and all of the benefits. The grant is not real money. A state appropriation is not real money. Make your buildings more efficient," recommends Lazar.

According to Lazar, TESC has prepared an analysis evaluating the $14 million project as though it had a cost of only $7.8 million by treating state appropriations and the state grant as "free money."

Breaking down the economic details, Lazar uses financial information provided by TESC facilities engineer Rich Davis. In his spreadsheets, Davis provides three economic scenarios for the project, two of which have negative cash flows. The third scenario, which assumes a 20 year project life - a longer mortgage - and the most amount of state appropriations and grants - 53% of costs - the project resulted in a positive cash flow.

TESC's financing plan calls for $3.7 million from the Commerce Jobs Act, which they received, $4.0 million in a 2011-13 Capital Budget appropriation, and between $6.8 to $7.8 million in "borrowed funds" from the state General Administration's energy performance contracting program. This latter amount must be paid back with interest. The $6.8 to $7.8 million is what Davis treats as the total "cost" of the project, which worries Lazar.

Lazar says he was pretty neutral about the biomass project until he saw the economics. Then, when Lazar calculated the project considering the entire cost of $14 million, he determined that the CO2 savings – again, assuming biomass is carbon neutral – come at a cost of $207/ton to $269/ton.

"This is about ten times the estimated amount of other alternatives for reducing CO2 emissions, such as closing the Centralia coal plant. Bottomline, the economics of the project are dreadful," says Lazar.

Health Impact Questions

Jeffrey Morris, economist and principal of Sound Resource Management with 25 years professional experience in biomass issues, also gave a presentation at the same meeting on the environmental health impacts of biomass facilities versus other alternatives.

"Wood waste energy releases more carbon than energy generated using fossil fuels," says Morris. Greenhouse gas is not the only thing to worry about.

"All wood waste management options have public health and environmental consequences: human respiratory disease, toxics, carcinogens, ecosystem toxics, acidification, and eutrophication - a process where water bodies receive excess nutrients that stimulate excessive plant growth - emissions," explains Morris. The question is which management option is the least harmful.

Morris recommends that TESC stop the feasibility study on biomass, look at other options, and create a variety of heat sources such as geothermal, solar and wind.

Morris says he began reaching out to TESC and the Clean Energy Committee meeting two years ago to furnish his peer-reviewed reports and studies but has not seen an incorporation of his comments in their work.

"Nothing has changed - the website is the same. It still says biomass is carbon neutral," Morris says. "Although the State of Washington says biomass is carbon neutral, if the science doesn't back it up, then it should be changed.

"Carbon neutrality is a myth - it's not possible to sustain all the things we do with fossil fuels. The answer is to use less fuels - 80% less. That's the challenge. We need to reduce, not readjust," says Morris.

Both Lazar and Morris recently provided their economic and environmental presentations to several members of TESC's Sustainability Council and Clean Energy Committee.

Morris also appeared, along with Washington State University chemist Greg Helms, on Thurston Community Television's "Green Issues Forum," a show hosted by Janet Jordan, to discuss biomass issues.

On the show, which aired in September, Morris asserted that there is a lack of carbon neutrality in wood and that wood is higher in carbon emissions than coal or natural gas - twice as bad as natural gas in terms of toxics and carcinogens.

Helms agreed, adding that wood is high in sodium, calcium and potassium. Regarding heavy metals in the context of particulates and nanoparticles, Helms spoke about the way they have potential human health impacts when they are released via woody biomass conversation to energy.

"Metals like to hitch rides with 'ultrafines' - particles that are hard to catch before they go out the stack," said Helms, and are known to be carried quite a distance.

Regarding DNR's policies, Helms said, "A lot of our forestry practices need to be evaluated...we're on our third cut. The soils are in trouble at this question (to TESC) is, how sustainable is that?"

Helms said that Washington State University did a county by county study in 2002 that was published in 2005. "The University of Washington did a study of Olympic resources....Are they (DNR) not getting the numbers they want to hear? I think not...."

Sustainability Questions

Mark Harmon, the Oregon State University forest science professor considered to be a leading authority on carbon resequestering issues, spoke at Evergreen earlier this month.

Participants of a recent community meeting at Evergreen discussed what they learned from Harmon's lecture.

Rob Cole, a TESC faculty member in physics and a member of TESC's Sustainability Council, recounted Harmon's assertion that carbon neutrality is possible depending on the "starting point" and harvesting methods.

"If we alter forest practices, we can reframe the discussion," says Cole.

"Three years ago, a geothermal alternative (for TESC) was my first choice. It still is. At that time, I was hooted down by the director of facilities....The burning of biomass can be carbon neutral but there's a lag time (a delay in resequestration) depending on the starting point. If the lag time is 60 to several hundred years, that's not acceptable....The lag time must be zero. Mark's comments, taken at face value, kill the project. We have to discuss lag times. In the absence of addressing lag time, I see no reason to continue.

"Since I first walked into this discussion two or three years ago, the issue has become more complicated," said Cole.

Pat Rasmussen, coordinator of the World Temperate Rainforest Network, has attended several local community and campus meetings, providing her perspective that biomass is a false solution to climate change.

She believes that Evergreen has based their claim that biomass gasification is carbon neutral on what the biomass industry has told them. She says she has several bibliographies with dozens of pages of sources, most if not all peer-reviewed and including Mark Harmon, that say that biomass wood burning is not carbon neutral.

Rasmussen says that a book just released by thirty scientists, "Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation" says that the temperate rainforests in our bioregion hold more carbon than any other forest type in the world and should be conserved for the carbon they hold and take from the atmosphere.

"The temperate rainforests of our bioregion hold more carbon per acre than any other forest type on the planet. In the United States, the top 10 national forests with the highest carbon storage are in western Oregon, Washington and Alaska. These rainforests store nearly 9.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents or roughly twice the amount of the nation's emissions from burning fossil fuels annually. They are a big sponge for carbon. Logging this carbon sink releases a pulse of carbon into the atmosphere for at least twenty years, exacerbating global warming, and it is 60 to 150 years and more until that carbon debt begins to be repaid.

"The stated goal of the Evergreen project is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but woody biomass burning increases CO2 to the atmosphere over coal and natural gas. Replacing 'black carbon' with 'green carbon' increases greenhouse gas emissions, so it is not a solution to climate change. Instead, it would exacerbate global warming," says Rasmussen.

Rasmussen also takes issue with Evergreen claims that it would use Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and says that the Department of Natural Resources can change the terms of a wood supply contract at any time to adjust for market conditions if the supplier - the timber company - invests a certain amount of money into the project.

"What that means is if it's cheaper to get wood from clearcuts, we'll be using wood from clearcuts."

Rasmussen recommends that Evergreen research air source heat pumps that take heat from the heat sink in the air and heat and cool buildings and heat water. She says the cost for this retrofit would be eight to nine million, less than the nearly $14 million estimated planned for biomass gasification.

"A number of schools in Washington are already using air source heat pumps and in a similar situation have seen 48% energy savings. The electricity for the heat pumps can be from wind and solar, making it carbon neutral and renewable."

For more information:

The TESC Sustainability Council's website is out of date. It is

The South Sound Green Pages: Autumn 2010 issue, produced by the South Puget Environmental Education Clearinghouse (SPEECH) covers the biomass issue, with articles by Jim Lazar, Scott Morgan, Dani Madrone, Pat Rasmussen and Janine Gates. See Full disclosure: Janine Gates is president of SPEECH, a local non-profit, and serves an an editor of the Green Pages. Her views and opinions are her own and do not necessarily represent SPEECH.

World Temperate Rainforest Network: Pat Rasmussen,, 509-669-1549,

The Counter Point Journal October 2010 issue features an article by C.V. Rotondo on TESC's biomass issue at

Works in Progress has an interview with Mark Harmon in its November issue,

List of Washington State Department of Commerce awards:

The Governor's press release:

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources has a series of forest biomass factsheets at

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Going, Going, Gone: Two Legion Way Trees Come Down

Above: Workers bring down a tree on Legion Way today.

by Janine Gates

Workers took down two trees on Legion Way today. They were the first of five that will be removed this week. Topping, a once accepted pruning practice, has permanently damaged some of the iconic trees and pose a serious safety risk.

The city of Olympia and the Eastside Neighborhood Association (ENA) are having a Legion Way tree planting and Veteran’s Day celebration on Thursday, November 11, 2010, at 1:00 p.m. Look for the booths and staging area in the First United Methodist Church parking lot at 1224 Legion Way SE.

Legion Way will be local access only on Nov. 11, with parking restrictions on Nov. 10 and 11.

Much like the original celebration and planting in 1928, the community is invited to celebrate, and will include American Legion Post #3, the National Guard, the 2nd Battalion 146th Field Artillery, and Ira L. Cater Veteran’s of Foreign Wars Post #318.

The city and the ENA will be celebrating the planting of 12 new oak trees, a new long-term stewardship plan, and the ongoing living memorial of Legion Way's trees. The 12 new trees will replace seven trees that have been lost over the past few years due to branch or whole tree failures.

The city has developed a long-term stewardship plan to help ensure the well-being of the trees and the safety of those who live on Legion Way.

Above: With the state Capitol Building peeking out from behind Madison Elementary School, a limb is cut and falls onto the sidewalk. Editor's Note: I have lived on the Eastside, including Legion Way, for most of my 27 years in Olympia. Over the years, I have witnessed numerous near misses involving fallen limbs of this size.

The ENA also invites community members to donate for these and future replacement trees. A donation of $200 will pay for a single tree - donations of any amount are welcome. Visit to download a donation form or to donate online.

For more information about the city's Urban Forestry and Legion Way trees, contact Stacey Ray, City of Olympia Urban Forester, at 360.753.8046, or email

Above: Workers chip up the trees.

Above: The tree is gone and workers clean up leaves. First United Methodist Church is more visible.