Last week, Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, announced that city taxpayers would be paying $460 million for a biomass power plant they’d previously paid $128 million to help build on top of a yearly payment of $54 million for six years—that generated electricity for all of two months. The Nacogdoches Generating Facility in East Texas will likely be mothballed or torn down.
How the city of Austin came to own an unused power plant is a tale of willful government foolishness.
Austin city officials set a goal of obtaining 65% of the city’s electricity from renewable sources by 2027. But the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Until the challenge of electricity storage is solved, wind and solar power alone aren’t enough to keep the lights on.
We don’t hear that part much; instead, we’re told that renewable energy is both virtuous and plentiful. Sometimes we’re even told it’s cheap. And many Americans have bought into the doomsday narrative; almost half of voters aged 18 to 29 think climate change should be prioritized over economic growth.
Meanwhile, only a quarter of the population can name all three branches of government.
The politicians are buying into it as well, especially in a progressive city like Austin. This is where biomass power plants come in.
When government dictates that increasing shares of electricity must be provided by renewable, carbon dioxide-neutral energy, it has to look to biomass as an essential ingredient in meeting those government mandates. Because again, wind and solar cannot provide electricity reliably.
Biomass—mostly wood—is, by its nature, renewable. But only governments (both here and in Europe) are bold enough to make the false claim that biomass power is “carbon-neutral.” Biomass as a fuel isn’t and can never be carbon-neutral. Trees do act to impound carbon dioxide (it’s their food), turning the benign trace gas into cellulose as they grow, but the effort to harvest, transport, process, ship—often thousands of miles overseas—and then burn wood uses up a tremendous amount of energy.
Biomass has pitifully low energy density—coal has about 50% more energy by weight than does wood, and natural gas has 243% more—and it takes a lot more energy to get it to where it needs to be burned than fossil fuels. This, of course, is one of the reasons why burning wood for its energy was largely abandoned in favor of coal, oil and natural gas in the first place. Furthermore, biomass plants emit far higher levels of health-endangering pollution than do natural gas plants and, by some measures, about the same as coal.
Thus, as some politicians rush to “decarbonize” while at the same time trying to maintain a reliable electric supply (voters frown on blackouts), they enlisted biomass, which can be burned whenever it’s needed to keep electricity flowing in the grid.
One more thing—biomass is expensive, far more expensive than natural gas, for example, which has been made cheap and abundant by high-tech fracking technology.
The bottom line? Buying energy from the Nacogdoches biomass power plant would have cost Austin electricity users far more than the alternative—giving the plant’s private operators $54 million per year to keep the plant shuttered.
This is a rare instance of agreement between free-market conservatives and environmentalists. Both groups generally oppose biomass—the former because it’s costly and inefficient, and the latter because its carbon-neutrality is a politically convenient lie. Some things are just so wrong that almost everyone can agree they’re dumb—unless they’re in line to make some money off it.
Using wood to make electricity or to generate heat is not universally a bad thing, however. In California, environmental restrictions on logging have resulted in forests with dangerously high tree density. Air pollution regulations have simultaneously discouraged biomass facilities while also preventing prescribed burns of public and private lands overgrown with flammable brush and diseased trees.
So, while many politicians have blamed climate change for the increasing destructiveness of wildfires in the Pacific West, government policies to immediately suppress fires are far more to blame for the dangerous fuel load. In California, burning wood in a biomass plant would both generate some electricity to partially offset the cost of forest maintenance, while producing less harmful pollution than do out-of-control wildfires.
A larger challenge for people who use electricity (as well as environmentalists who fear emissions of carbon dioxide from human activity) is that policies aiming for higher amounts of renewable electricity are costly, ineffective, and encourage manufacturing activities to move to states or nations with lower electricity costs.
A new study by three University of Chicago economists finds that the 29 states with Renewable Portfolio Standards mandating minimum levels of renewable electricity have cost their consumers $125.2 billion from 1990 to 2015. On average, the economists found, electricity in states mandating the use of renewable electricity see an increase in electric prices of 17% in seven years, over what would have otherwise been the case.
In the city of Austin’s example, the costly error of paying almost a billion dollars to build, then to not operate, and then to buy a biomass plant will lead to far higher electric rates for their residents.