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Environmental groups oppose new Wolverine power plant in Northern Michigan

In order to get just five percent of its energy from biomass the 600 megawatt power plant planned by Wolverine Power Cooperative in Rogers City will burn 255,000 tons of freshly cut Northern Michigan trees each year.

This is among the issues that will be considered at a public hearing on a draft permit for the plant in Rogers City tonight.

Wolverine’s power generating plans and the regulatory environment in which they play out have shifted drastically since the company first proposed building a coal-fired power plant in a limestone quarry along the shore of Lake Huron in 2007.

In 2009 Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued an executive order requiring that coal plants demonstrate that they are the best way to meet the state’s power needs. Last year, after the Public Service Commission found that the plant was not needed, the DEQ denied the project a permit. Wolverine sued in Missaukee County court and in January the court ordered DEQ to reconsider the permit. Now the state has issued a draft permit and is in the process of taking public input before finalizing the air permit for the plant.

Federal rules for coal plant permitting have also changed since Wolverine first applied for a permit. Since January the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required that major new stationary sources of pollution demonstrate how they will use “Best Available Control Technology” to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Wolverine’s project is the first test of how Michigan will interpret EPA’s new requirements.

Coal plants are the leading emitters of greenhouse gases and there aren’t many ways around that.

“EPA acknowledges in their guidance documents that the standard right now is going to be energy efficiency,“ Dept. of Environmental Quality Permit Engineer Rob Lemroeux said. “Most [carbon control] technologies are in demonstration mode and not cost effective.”

The DEQ’s draft permit for the plant has it burning 70 percent petroleum coke (the carbon-rich leftovers of the oil refining process), 25 percent Powder River Basin coal, and 5 percent local green wood. The plant is expected to release 6,050,090 tons of greenhouse gases each year.

Lemroeux said that the draft permit allows Wolverine to meet its greenhouse gas requirements with efficiencies such as using variable speed motors on equipment inside the plant and by burning 5 percent biomass, 255,000 tons of green wood sourced from within a 75 mile radius of the plant.

Michigan Technical University study of biomass availability in the area commissioned by Wolverine found that the company could get 20 percent of its fuel stock by using all of the biomass available within a 75 mile radius, he said.

Michigan’s 2008 renewable portfolio standards require power companies to use get 10 percent of their energy from renewable source by 2015 and biomass, including wood, is considered a renewable energy source.

The permit requires the company to come up with a biomass procurement plan, Lemrouex said, but it’s not clear whether the plan will involve specifications as to the moisture content of the biomass. Moisture affects burn efficiency.

Anne Woiwode, director of the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that her group is planning to formally object to Wolverine’s biomass plan and argue that the permit should not be approved.

“The amount of wood is massive and one of the things that they have not accounted for is that there are already multiple other facilities that will be using wood in the Northern Lower peninsula and Eastern Upper peninsula.”

The Mascoma biomass facility in Kinross, a wood to ethanol project that has been heavily subsidized by the state, plans to use the wood from a 150 mile radius of its plant, and this area includes Rogers City. Woiwode said.

Woiwode also challenged the idea that biomass is a renewable, carbon neutral fuel.

Last year, in a study commissioned by the state of Massachusetts, the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences found that wood burning releases more carbon dioxide than coal and that it can take generations for forests to reabsorb carbon from the atmosphere.

“This is a whole new area for all of us,” Lemroeux said about the greenhouse gas considerations. “Any comments are valuable.”

The DEQ will take comments on this aspect of the project at a public hearing on May 19th at 7 p.m. in the Rogers City High School Gymnasium, 1033 West Huron Avenue, Rogers City.

Comments will also be accepted via the DEQ website until 5pm May 19.

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