Turkey Talk: Energy Policy and Thanksgiving — Episode 91 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 28 Nov 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

What do a failed biomass plant in Minnesota and a ban on gas hookups for new properties  in California have in common? Thanksgiving dinner!

On this bonus Thanksgiving Day episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with David Morris, ILSR Co-founder and Distinguished Fellow, and Maria McCoy, ILSR Energy Democracy Research Associate. The two interviews cover stories about local energy generation and usage — with a Thanksgiving theme — for ILSR’s Building Local Power podcast, republished here for Local Energy Rules.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources, below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

David Morris Even at that time, there was a good market for turkey manure, and our argument was that as organics came in and became more and more popular, that that market would be continually expanding. So if you burn it, you end up essentially getting rid of almost all of the nitrogen and you end up with kind of a soil amendment, which is much less valuable.
Maria McCoy There’s a lot of things in that gas coming into your home that, essentially, if you don’t have the right ventilation, the toxins could actually be reaching levels that would be illegal outdoors
John Farrell Welcome to a special Thanksgiving Day edition of Local Energy Rules, where we’ll be taking on two holiday themed topics. The first is turkey turds, where we’ll talk with ILSR co-founder and senior fellow David Morris about a recently closed power plant that burned turkey manure until the utility belatedly realized it could get a lot more clean energy for less. After that, we’ll talk with ILSR researcher Maria McCoy about the hidden peril in your Thanksgiving cooking plan––the gas in your stove. 

I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy.

David, welcome to the program.

David Morris Thanks for having me.
John Farrell So, we could call this thing Talking Turkey About Clean Energy, or we could say we’re talking about turkey turds. But what we’re really talking about is a recently closed power plant that was burning I guess what they call “turkey litter” to produce electricity in southern Minnesota. And I guess the idea of burning turkey litter, which is in Minnesota a local resource, we’ve got all sorts of large turkey farms, seems kind of like a good idea at first blush. But why is burning manure maybe not the best use of this material?
David Morris Well, let me back up for just two or three minutes, so one gets an understanding of the context.

First of all, turkeys are the largest birds, largest poultry generator of manure in Minnesota. If you happen to be in Delaware or Maryland, it would be chickens. But here it is turkeys. And secondly, there was a huge confrontation, if you will, in 1991, 1992 around the utility companies asking permission; and they needed permission to store their radioactive waste generated by their nuclear plant onsite. And coming out of that tumultuous legislative session was an agreement that they could do that for 10 years, but that they also then needed to meet renewable energy targets. And they were specified as a certain amount of wind energy and a certain amount of biomass energy. And the biomass energy was supposed to be used with fast-growing trees that would be converted into electricity and heat in a new process that had been developed in Minnesota.

If we then fast-forward a few years, almost 10 years, what we will find is that the wind energy mandate was going gangbusters, but the biomass mandate was having trouble meeting its numbers. And there was a choice, an alternative, of essentially forgoing the expansion of biomass and increasing wind, this was before solar was economical, or trying to find other forms of biomass. And so, the legislature began amending its initial law. And one of them was that waste wood could be used, and another one was that turkey manure could be used. And so, that was the fight in the early part of the 21st century.

John Farrell And we should probably mention that, like 30 other states or so, Minnesota has these utility companies that are monopolies. So, when we talk about this process and this negotiation, it was with a utility company that has no competition. So, it is regulated by the state, and so it was up to the state to decide not only what they could do with their nuclear waste but also perfectly normal for them to be in these kinds of negotiations about what kind of energy they would produce.
David Morris Yes, it was. Although they didn’t want to be in these negotiations, they were mandated to be in these negotiations. And in the debate, if I could call it that, related to the turkey manure plant, which is the Fibrowatt, or the subsidiary of a company called Fibrowatt, which was based in England. The subsidiary called FibroMinn, obviously from Minnesota. In the debate around that, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance was the sole opponent, if you will, to it in the legislature and at the public utility commission. And our argument was a very simple one, which was, number one, turkey manure is not like pig manure or cow manure; it’s easily transportable and it’s high in nitrogen, and therefore is high in demand. Even at that time, there was a good market for turkey manure and our argument was that as organics came in and became more and more popular that that market would be continually expanding. So, if you burned it, you end up essentially getting rid of almost all of the nitrogen, and you end up with kind of a soil amendment, which is much less valuable. So, the number one issue that we had was why would you want to get rid of a perfectly excellent renewable resource for something which was an inferior value resource.

And the second was that it was expensive. And the utility company was forced to divulge the price that it was going to pay by the Institute essentially demanding that the Public Utility Commission order it to do so. And it turned out that it was between two and three times more expensive at that time than wind energy. So, our argument was, “Look, it’s a renewable energy mandate. It doesn’t have to be anything that can qualify as renewable and its biomass can be turned into electricity.” So, we argued, “Well, why don’t you just expand the numerical quotas for wind?”

So, that was our two arguments 15 years ago, if you will, and they were overruled by the legislature and overruled by the Public Utility Commission.

John Farrell Now, I also want to point out, because I think it’s helpful in terms of this overall perspective on renewable energy, that turkey litter being used as a fertilizer actually helps to reduce the use of other commercially available fertilizers, which are almost all universally produced with fossil fuels. By cracking natural gas or other processes. And so, not only are we burning up material that then left it fairly not useful as a fertilizer or soil amendment, but that in its original state it could have helped offset fossil fuel use more than by burning it.
David Morris Yes, indeed. An excellent point. And so, what we were doing was … Or what the state legislature and most of the environmental community was arguing was that we should take … “We” being the state of Minnesota and Minnesotans should take more than half, more than half, of the turkey litter generated in this state and we should burn that. And to replace the nitrogen that was then lost, we would have to burn a significant amount of natural gas and use a significant amount of natural gas; and we were replacing it with a resource, with a product if you will, that was two to three times more expensive than other renewable energy resources. And the numbers were really quite stark, if you will. We were burning up millions of dollars in nitrogen value, in terms of fertilizer. And we were subsidizing … We guessed it was between 100 and $200 million would be the subsidy. That is the price they were paying over the price they could have paid for renewable electricity over the 22 year contract.
John Farrell Maybe it’s no surprise then that this turkey turd burning power plant was decommissioned earlier this year, almost a decade before the power purchase contract was to expire, and largely because cleaner renewable energy resources, like in wind and solar, have become … Were already, as you mentioned, but have become far cheaper.
David Morris I think it’s a useful point that it got to be so expensive that Xcel bought out the Fibrominn. They bought out the contract, and they paid off the individuals who would lose their jobs, and paid off the town for the lost taxes. And they paid Fibrominn, to buy off their contract. So, the overall cost of it was something like … Oh, $150 million or so in, if you will, [inaudible 00:08:26] years prematurely. And Xcel said to the Public Utility Commission, “The prices of renewable energy are so low that they will actually save far more than that.” So, even with the hit of $150 million, they said that they were going to save over $300 million because renewable electricity was so much cheaper.
John Farrell I had this question written down, but I think you’ve kind of already answered it, about the economics of the plant never really made sense at all, neither in terms of the fuel that it was using nor in terms of the price that customers were paying.

So, maybe we should talk a little bit about, if the state could go back a decade, or really almost two decades to when this decision was originally made, maybe what advice would you have offered them? I’m sure at the time it seemed like, “Well, we should try lots of different things. We should experiment,” but obviously this wasn’t something that would scale up very well anyway to become cheaper. There was no process innovation, and it was using something that was a very valuable resource.

David Morris Well, the thing about it is that, without patting ourselves on the back and breaking my arm here, we did offer all of this criticism to them at the time and offered alternatives. The state of Maryland, for example, was involved in a much more urgent issue because they were producing so much poultry manure that it was causing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. They were overloading the soil with phosphorus, and they had to do something about it. So, there it was an emergency. They had millions and millions of birds within a very small area. But what they did is they looked at a lot of possible alternatives. And what they adopted was an alternative that said, “Okay, what would the overall cost be of this method, this method, and this method?” And they decided that the value of the fertilizer was so high that any incentive, or subsidy, or money that they would invest in getting rid of the soil pollution problem should be invested in preserving the nitrogen. And so, they funded individual farmers and small companies to transport. That is they covered the transport cost because there were states that, within a couple hundred miles or 300 miles, where they in fact needed that nitrogen. It was not an overload if they put it … And they also provided money to a plant. It was Perdue. A huge, huge poultry producer and contractor. And they used money, and their own money, to create a pelletized plant. And so, what they did is pelletize the turkey manure so it was much easier and much cheaper to transport. That was still going until maybe six months ago. And what they found was that it was perfectly good and perfectly profitable for them to do that; but it was more profitable if they composted it. So, they have converted the pelletizer plant into a compost facility, which saves them a lot of energy and captures more of the fertilizer value.

So, the state of Maryland did this, and they did this before the issue was joined in Minnesota. Now, they had a crisis, and they confronted it in, one would hope, would be the way that any public body should. We didn’t have that, as Minnesota didn’t have a crisis: it had a bunch of lobbyists from Britain that was trying to peddle a new technology, and slipping in through an amendment to the existing biomass mandate.

John Farrell I guess one of the things I think would be great to touch on here David is that ILSR, as you mentioned, we were involved in this discussion in Minnesota. I think it would be great to share a little bit about some of the history here in terms of this project that we had for many years called the carbohydrate economy. I remember this actually, I’ve now been here for 13 years so we’ve got two people on this conversation who have been around for awhile at the Institute. But one of the things that we have often talked about in our work in renewable energy and especially when it comes to biomass is thinking about what’s the highest value of the material? Maryland here provides this great example. There’s this sort of range from burning it, to pelletizing it to use this fertilizer, now to composting it and again, being able to continue these other uses.

Could you just talk a little bit more broadly about what that might mean for other things that we’re now talking about? For example, we have electric vehicles coming in and other technologies now for homes to heat using renewable electricity so we’re not going to have as much need for fossil fuels. And some of what I’ve heard already is that the peddlers of gas and oil are looking for ways to say our stuff is still valuable. Chemicals are one things that we make using a lot of fossil fuels, plastic bags, things like that. Do you see a corollary between this conversation that’s sort of upcoming about using fossil fuels for materials and this history of what happened in Maryland and Minnesota?

David Morris Absolutely. Absolutely I do. And people, if you’re looking at a renewable resource, plant matter is a renewable resource just as wind is renewable resource. Solar is a renewable resource. The difference is that in wind, if you harness the wind, you can use it, it seems to me only for mechanical power or electrical output. With solar it’s you could use it for thermal or you could use it for electrical. That is some form of energy. But when it comes to plant matter, there’s a hierarchy of uses. Obviously at the highest level it’s food. And then some people would say at a similar high level, it’s medicines and health. And then, what is the third level? Well, I would argue that the third level should be biochemicals. Any petrochemical can be made from a biochemical, and it makes sense because after all, what is a fossil fuel? It’s a plant matter that was fossilized over millions of years and compressed and it got rid of the oxygen essentially. And you ended up with carbon and hydrogen rather than carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. You can do that. And it turned out that oil was so cheap and the technologies were oriented to manipulating it, that that’s where the society had gone. But the science now of biological changes, biological engineering is so much better than that. And then I would say that after that, biochemicals would be energy. And when it came to energy, the highest use for energy would be for electricity and heat. Or maybe just heat. That is when you burn wood for electricity, and this is similar to why we oppose incinerators for garbage, the efficiency of the plants are about 30% maybe 35% at maximum. Whereas if you capture the heat from that process because you’re generating heat as well, you can get up to 90% of the value of the energy value out from that. And then then the last would be converting it into electricity. And so it seems to me that that’s how we should approach biomass in general. And the turkey litter example was one piece of that. People were approaching it as if it was wind and solar and there was only one possible output. And in the 1990s, early and late 1990s, we had a great deal of research and reports on what petrochemicals could be replaced by biochemicals and what would be the feed sources for those biochemicals? And in fact worked with a number of different companies and with governments to accelerate that conversion process. And now it’s far advanced in terms of the ability for companies to be substituting the biochemicals for petrochemicals.
John Farrell Well, David, I really appreciate your coming to talk as I like to call it, turkey turds for Turkey day. Before we let you go, any Thanksgiving tradition that you would like to share you’re looking forward to, that hopefully you’ll be celebrating on the day that we release this podcast?
David Morris Well actually we do have a tradition, my wife and I, Harriet, have a tradition which is to go to Wisconsin and to have Thanksgiving on a farm. And so we will be in a place where as we take a short drive, we will see the turkeys. They don’t know what’s coming, but we will see the turkeys that presumably are still joyful and we will certainly be in the middle of an agricultural sector that has its own issues in terms of sand being excavated for fracking and what that means in terms of western Wisconsin. But the tradition is one of good cheer, extended family and excellent food including turkey.
John Farrell Very good. Thanks David.

You’re listening to a special Thanksgiving 2019 episode of Local Energy Rules. We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll talk with another researcher at the Institute, Maria McCoy, about the unexpected health perils of cooking with gas.

John Farrell Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations every year. Each year, our small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to Ilsr.org and click on the donate button. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it or by giving it a review on iTunes, stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts: Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.
John Farrell We’ve talked about turkey turds and now with me is Maria McCoy, research associate on the energy program, to talk about our second Thanksgiving day related energy issue, the peril in your kitchen from cooking your Thanksgiving meal. What is it other than our expanding waistlines, Maria, that we have to worry about from our Thanksgiving day feast?
Maria McCoy As you might’ve heard on past Local Energy Rules and Building Local Power podcasts, there’s been a movement to ban gas hookups in residential buildings because gas stoves are actually releasing a lot of pollutants into your home.
John Farrell A lot of people are either listening to this to avoid their family or they’re listening to this a few days after Thanksgiving when they’ve gotten back to work, it’s a work related thing. You can count that time. And they are probably interested in gas from a climate perspective, in terms of gas being something we burn in power plants, that we use for home heating, they probably haven’t thought a lot about the fact that we cook with it. Can we first of all just be a little more specific? Gas releases a bunch of pollutants into the home when you cook with it. Obviously if you have a vent system for your stove or oven, this is not as big of a deal. Or if you’re cooking with your window open for example, but if you’re not, can you just give some context about how bad is it really? Gas looks really clean. They talk about it, clean burning natural gas. I see all the advertisements. Can you give us a sense, Maria, for how bad it is to have cooked a meal with gas on your stove or in your oven?
Maria McCoy First of all, yeah, anytime you’re burning something, it’s really not going to be clean. There’s a lot of things in that gas coming into your home that essentially if you don’t have the right ventilation, the toxins could actually be reaching levels that would be illegal outdoors.
John Farrell There’s a lot of bad stuff. What are some of the impacts of this poor indoor air quality? What, I think a lot of people have trouble kind of making this connection. We can talk to them about uncombusted gas for example. There’s methane or when we have combustion, people have heard about carbon monoxide being a potential threat. If your furnace stops operating effectively, but what’s the actual impact on people in the home? People who are in the kitchen doing the cooking? What are some of the potential impacts if you’re having this kind of pollution in your home?
Maria McCoy Yeah, there is always the risk anytime there is gas infrastructure of leaks and things like that of that raw gas going into your home, but beyond that there’s actually studies that show a higher rate of asthma in homes that have gas stoves.
John Farrell And they don’t have that proper ventilation. I also saw Sean Armstrong who was on the podcast that we did earlier this year, talking to us about the impact of cooking with gas. Shared not only the information about outdoor air quality and indoor air quality, how much worse it was. He also talked about supper smog, which I thought was a very clever term for helping people to conceptualize this. And he also shared a graphic that we have in the post about nitrous oxides, which are one of the pollutants that’s created. It’s one of the components of smog outside. When I talk about like Los Angeles and smog from cars, this is one of the pollutants they’re talking about. And his chart shows that it’s as much as 30 times higher if you cook an entire meal on a gas appliance than the outdoor air quality standards for nitrous oxide. It’s really big.

What do we do about this? I think we should talk, probably talk about two different things. You introduce this in terms of this podcast interview, which is about what communities are trying to do. The city of Berkeley was saying for new multifamily homes, we’re not going to allow gas hookup. We’re not going to allow them to connect to the gas network. Literally everything in the house has to operate on some different fuel, which is generally going to be electricity. What are people doing individually though? If you’re not allowed to use gas, what are you going to do to heat your home? Or what are you going to do to cook with? And how might that compare?

Maria McCoy There’s many different technologies already available to switch out gas. There are obviously electric cooktops and space heaters and things, but we’ve also been looking at heat pumps, which can work now in cold weather as well to replace a furnace. Or there’s also the option of an induction stove top, which are actually much more efficient than either gas or electric stoves. And you can really control the results of your food too, which is what people probably care about.
John Farrell I’m fascinated by induction. I cook a lot in my house. I currently have an electric range, which was different when I moved from the one that I had used before. And I found this stuff about induction really interesting. First of all, I don’t totally understand how it works and I think I’m just going to let myself not understand. A typical electric stove is basically using electric resistance to heat something. The same thing, like you said, a space… space heater or an electric range. They all work the same way, which is basically generating heat through a metal coil through the electricity and it’s not terribly efficient. That’s one reason why we heat homes generally with gas burning furnaces, for example, instead of using electricity right now. You mentioned heat pumps, which is basically like a reverse air conditioner, is the way I like to describe that to people, that uses a compressor and the differential and air temperature to heat a home. But I think induction’s really interesting because you mentioned people do care about how this works when they cook. Like I said, I can’t totally explain the technology, but the basic idea is that the induction, the heat goes directly to the pan. If you turn on an induction burner and you stick your hand on it, it will be cool to the touch. But if you have a conductive pan, so it’s made out of steel or iron or something, that’s what heats up. If you have a wireless charger for your cell phone, that’s kind of the same principle, in a way. So it’s a lot more controllable. So like if I turn off my electric burner on my current stove… and burner is probably not the right term for it, of course… but if I turn off that electric coil right now, it’s still hot and remains hot for a while afterwards. That’s also why when people are cooking, for example, it’s hard to adjust the temperature because that residual heat stays there for a while. But with induction you’re saying, if I want to just turn off the heat, it’s off immediately?
Maria McCoy Yeah, pretty much. And obviously the pan or whatever you’re using will still be hot, but the actual surface of the induction burner or stove itself will not be.
John Farrell And I’ve also heard that it’s actually a lot faster than a typical electric range or even a gas stove then, for some simple tasks like boiling water.
Maria McCoy Yeah.
John Farrell That is one of the cool features of induction ranges. They’re actually very popular in Europe and have been for some time. So the fact that we don’t have them in the United States is just an example of kind of innovative technology maybe not crossing over here into the market where it’s very much dominated by typical electric resistance, cookware and whatnot.

We’ve talked a little bit about the individual impact. So if you’ve just cooked a Thanksgiving meal and you’ve done it on a gas appliance and you don’t have a vent over your stove or you don’t have your windows open, you’re probably breathing air that is far in excess of outdoor air quality standards right now. You know some of the things that you can do. There are different appliances you could buy. You can cook with the windows open. It’s hard to do at this time of year in a lot of parts of the country. It’s pretty cold out. But what our communities are doing about this. So let’s go back and talk a little bit about what Berkeley decided to do with it, kind of is really catalyzing this whole conversation. Why did they take this approach, for example, instead of just saying nobody can use gas at all anymore, and what are they hoping is going to happen as time goes on? Do you think that they’re going to expand on this policy to incorporate existing homes? Do you see other communities interested in the same policy?

Maria McCoy So council member Kate Harrison, who was part of the Berkeley Council that passed this gas ban, talks about in the interview how a lot of this infrastructure is going to have to be replaced eventually anyway. So by just banning gas hookups in new multifamily rental housing, this will stop further hookups to gas in communities that don’t really have a choice in the matter. So when they’re not the building owners, they don’t really get to choose what kind of appliances they have most often, or what kind of infrastructure exists beneath the building even. So that’s part of it.
John Farrell Well, let me follow up on that. I think what you brought up is a really interesting point about what choices people have. So the folks that are going to be living in the buildings that Berkeley is targeting, generally aren’t going to be the ones buying their own appliances anyway, right? I mean, they’re renters. They’re coming in. The appliances are already going to be there. So folks that already live in apartments in Berkeley are not picking what appliance they’re using. So if they have bad health impacts, as we’ve heard about, from gas appliances in their apartment, and if there’s no ventilation for them, they don’t really have a lot they can do about it. They don’t have the option to just go out and buy something else. They may not be able to afford it. So it sounds like in a way that Berkeley’s sort of trying to head off this issue for future apartments by saying, folks in those apartments, we’re going to help protect your health by making sure that when the building is built, it’s not even an option to have these appliances that can be dangerous to your health.

Sean also talked about, as I recall, in the interview, some other benefits that come from building buildings without gas. Could you talk a little bit about those?

Maria McCoy Yeah, he did. So it actually costs less to avoid using gas infrastructure and just go all electric. And this is one thing that Sean, as a affordable housing developer, was able to bring to that interview. Requiring that these new multifamily homes can’t use gas, will help save costs in the actual construction of these homes. And I think, as many people already know, there’s a lot of issues with housing in California, and so by saving money constructing these homes, that should allow developers to create additional units for more people to have a place to live.
John Farrell And they should hopefully be more affordable as well. There’s an interesting parallel to this happening in the northeast where there’s a fight right now between a gas company, National Grid, and the State of New York about their gas network. They want a big new gas pipeline built and the state does not want them to build it, concerned kind of about the longterm cost-effectiveness of the thing. And so the gas company itself, in this case, said, we’re not going to hook anybody up for gas. And in fact, even people who were already in the process of building a building, were prevented from doing the gas hookup that they had been promised, which is, of course, an issue for them in the sense that they’d already designed the building with the internal, the guts, if you will, to allow for the use of gas in the building.

I’m wondering if what Berkeley has done is likely to trigger communities in New York, or in other places around the country, to look at this from the same perspective in terms of both housing affordability and health. And if you think that there’re going to be other places that are going to do something similar.

Maria McCoy So another part of the Berkeley gas ban we hadn’t talked about yet is the risk to the infrastructure of earthquakes. And so that is a problem unique to the Southwest. But those other issues of health and affordability are pretty universal. And so I think, in the interview, Kate mentions that a community in Massachusetts has already reached out to her, looking to replicate this type of ban. For other communities who are looking to give these health benefits and these costs savings to residents, another option, besides an all-out ban, is providing the type of funding opportunities for people to do this themselves. So the Berkeley ban does prevent gas hookups in new buildings, but as far as people who already have these gas stoves and are concerned about both their energy use and the health effects, if they’re given the right tools, things like on-bill financing, they could make these improvements and cities can incentivize that.
John Farrell So it seems like a number of things cities could do would be, work with local appliance dealers to even make sure that these things are available. I think the only place I recall seeing an induction cooktop when I’ve been around recently is at Ikea, and there’s not a whole lot of those. So there’s other places that they could be. But figuring out ways that people could pay for these things, maybe on their utility bill for example, or on their property tax bill or something like that. Or using rebates, has been another way to do this. In fact, just a quick side light, one of the more interesting rebate models that we’ve heard about is this woman, Marti Frank, who does program evaluation on energy efficiency on California, has come up with what she calls the shift model, which is, right now, most programs for energy efficiency will say, “Hey, you buy this energy efficient refrigerator and you get 150 bucks back after you submit your UPC code and your receipts and whatever, and it will be two months.”

And what she’s looked at is how do you provide that money to people upfront at the time that they’re buying the appliance so that they can make that decision. So it’d be interesting if you had the option, for example, to buy down the cost of an induction cooktop or an electric stove, so to make sure that it’s equivalent to a gas stove and to give people that option.

Cool. Well I hope everybody who’s listening to this had a good Turkey Day. We’re speaking to you a week ahead of time in our preparations, but before we wrap up, maybe we’ll just do a quick question for Maria and I to answer about favorite Thanksgiving food or Thanksgiving tradition. So I’m going to go first to give her time to think about this, because I just had this question on a call I was on, but pumpkin bread is definitely mine, although I heard lots of good stories about pickup football games being played after. So I’m jealous that people who have that as a Thanksgiving tradition, of going outside and trying to enjoy that a little bit. But I’ll be looking forward to making a lot of pumpkin bread in my electric oven.

Maria McCoy I think mine might have to be a pumpkin cheese cake that my mom makes. It’s very good.
John Farrell All right, we’re all pumpkin, all the time, here at ILSR.

Thanks for listening to our two-topic Thanksgiving Day special episode of Local Energy Rules. You can find more on the perils of turkey poop from testimony David Morris provided against the poop-burning power plant on our website. You can also find our Local Energy Rules podcast episode with Kate Harrison and Sean Armstrong about Berkeley’s effort to address public health by banning gas connections for new properties. On our website, you can also find more than 90 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast. Until next time, keep your energy local, and thanks for listening.

Turkey Talk — The Failed FibroMinn Biomass Plant

FibroWatt, a company developing poultry litter-fired power plants, made its first venture into the U.S. with the FibroMinn biomass plant. The plant opened in 2007 in Benson, Minnesota. At that time, the state of Minnesota was looking to fill its 1994 renewable energy mandate. Although the state could have done so much more effectively, argues Morris, Minnesota-serving utility Xcel Energy entered a 21 year contract with FibroMinn. 

Morris and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance advised against the power plant from the start. From both materials use and clean energy perspectives, the turkey litter-powered plant was a bad deal.

Firstly, burning the turkey litter was a waste of organic material. Burning the material (turkey poop, feathers, wood chips, and feed) removes most of the nitrogen, a valuable fertilizer. Plus, producing inorganic fertilizer burns fossil fuels, which could have been displaced by just using the turkey litter itself. Morris brings up the example of Maryland, which at the time had an excess of poultry litter to manage. Maryland came up with a much different solution to its problem. The state decided the nitrogen in the litter was too valuable to waste and subsidized the transportation of litter to nearby states, where there was a demand.

The second part of Morris’s argument, plainly, is that biomass-generated electricity is expensive. Wind energy was much cheaper at the time. Since then, solar has become cheaper as well. Contracting with the power plant left ratepayers to subsidize a wasteful, expensive power source instead of cleaner, less expensive resources. 

ILSR was the only one opposed in 2000, says Morris. His arguments to the Minnesota Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission were not enough to sway the legislators and regulators against the plant.

Without patting ourselves on the back and breaking my arm, here, we did offer all of this criticism to them at the time — and offered alternatives.

David Morris

The FibroMinn plant was such an expensive source of energy that in June of 2018, Xcel Energy bought out its contract, paid workers who would be losing their jobs, and paid the town for its lost tax revenue.

Even with the hit of 150 million dollars, they said that they were going to save over 300 million dollars, because renewable electricity was so much cheaper.

David Morris

Morris concludes that there is some need for biofuels as replacements for fossil fuels, but only in processes that cannot be electrified or are inefficient when electrified. These are, as he ranks them: food and medicine, chemicals, and heat energy.

Alone in his opposition to the now failed biomass plant, read David Morris’s 2000 testimony to the Minnesota House Regulated Industries Subcommittee.

A Healthier Kitchen — Berkeley’s Landmark Gas Ban

In summer of 2019, Berkeley, Calif., passed a first-in-the-country ban on natural gas hook-ups to new buildings. The City Council passed the measure to mitigate the safety hazards of gas infrastructure, reduce the construction cost of homes, and improve the health of residents. The ban covers new multi-family buildings and will go into effect in January 2020. 

How might this ban impact a Thanksgiving meal?

In their prior interview with Farrell, both Berkeley City Councilor Kate Harrison and housing developer Sean Armstrong stress the health risks of gas in the home. As Farrell quotes in this interview, cooking on a gas stove with improper ventilation can produce nitrous oxide levels 30 times higher than what is legal under outdoor air quality standards.

There’s a lot of things in that gas coming into your home that, essentially, if you don’t have the right ventilation, the toxins could actually be reaching levels that would be illegal outdoors.

Maria McCoy

High concentrations of these pollutants have been proven to increase rates of asthma, especially in homes with children.

Image from Redwood Energy

Beyond the health impacts, building homes with gas infrastructure is more expensive. Banning gas hookups can bring down the cost of multi-family homes, which can in turn lower the cost of individual units and even increase the number of units built.

Banning gas is one step toward electrification and the clean energy goals many cities and states have made, but some are concerned about what alternatives there are for gas appliances. In the interview, Farrell and McCoy discuss two options: induction stoves and heat pumps.

Induction stoves are more efficient than electric and gas stoves, while still offering the responsiveness sought by cooks. They are just starting to break into the U.S. market. Heat pumps can replace a gas furnace by working as a “reverse air conditioner,” says Farrell. Using new technology, heat pumps can even work in sub-zero temperatures.

In order to increase access to and the affordability of these technologies, cities can offer incentives, rebates, or use Marti Frank’s Shift Model. They can also pressure electric utilities to offer inclusive energy financing. As more places ban gas — at least for new properties — the growing market should bolster the use and lower the cost of these technologies.

Berkeley was the first to ban gas, but several cities have already followed suit. Soon after the Berkeley City Council passed the ordinance, San Luis Obispo and San Jose passed similar bans in California. Recently, Brookline, Mass., passed a gas ban, expanding the phenomenon outside of California.

Episode Notes

For more on each story covered in this episode, see these other ILSR posts:

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 91st episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured Photo Credit: Shelly Prevost via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Turkey farm photo credit: Chiot’s run via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.