Woody Biomass & Waste-To-Energy

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

While solar and wind energy gets much of the attention in renewable energy debates, various states are also leaning more and more on burning biomass and waste to reach renewable energy targets and mandates. As is the case with all sources of energy, these so-called “renewable energy” projects present a unique set of environmental and socioeconomic justice issues, as well as environmental costs and benefits. In an effort to document the geography of these active and proposed future projects, this article offers some analysis and a new map of waste and woody biomass-to-energy infrastructure across the U.S. with the maximum capacities of each facility.


Map of U.S. Facilities Generating Energy from Biomass and Waste

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How FracTracker maps work

Woody Biomass-to-Energy

To illustrate the problems of woody biomass-to-energy projects, one only needs to look at Michigan. Michigan’s growing practice of generating energy from the wood biomass relies on ten facilities that currently produce roughly 209 Megawatts (an average of 21 MW per facility) from 1.86 million tons of wood biomass (an average of 309,167 tons per facility). Based on our initial analysis this is equivalent to 71% of the wood and paper waste produced in Michigan.

Making matters worse, these ten facilities rely disproportionately on clearcutting 60-120 years old late successional northern Michigan hardwood and red pine forests. These parcels are often replanted with red pine and grown in highly managed, homogeneous 20-30 year rotations. Reliance on this type of feedstock stands in sharp contrast to many biomass-to-energy facilities nationally, which tend to utilize woody waste from urban centers. Although, to provide context to their needs, the area of forest required to service Michigan’s 1.86 million-ton demand is roughly 920 mi2. This is 1.65 times the area of Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Toronto combined.


Panorama of the Sunset Trail Road 30 Acre Biomass Clearcut, Kalkaska Conty, Michigan


Based on an analysis of 128 U.S. facilities, the typical woody biomass energy facility produces 0.01-0.58 kW, or an average of 0.13 kW per ton of woody biomass. A few examples of facilities in Michigan include Grayling Generating Station, Grayling County (36.2 MW Capacity and 400,000 TPY), Viking Energy of McBain, Missaukee County (17 MW Capacity and 225,000 TPY), and Cadillac Renewable Energy, Wexford County (34 MW Capacity and 400,000 TPY).


The relationship between wood processed and energy generated across all U.S. landfill waste-to-energy operations is represented in the figure below (note: data was log transformed to generate this relationship).



Dr. Jim Stewart at the University of the West in Rosemead, California, recently summarized the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) costs of waste landfill energy projects and a recent collaboration between the Sierra Club and International Brotherhood of Teamsters explored the dangers of privatizing waste-to-energy given that two companies, Waste Management and Republic Services/Allied Waste, are now a duopoly controlling all remaining U.S. landfill capacity (an additional Landfill Gas Fact Sheet from Energy Justice can be found here).

Their combined analysis tells us that, by harnessing and combusting landfill methane, the current inventory of ninety-three U.S. waste-to-energy facilities generate 5.3 MW of electricity per facility. Expanded exploitation of existing landfills could bring an additional 500 MW online and alleviate 21.12 million metric tons of CO2 pollution (based on reduction in fugitive methane, a potent greenhouse gas). Looking at this capacity from a different angle, approximately 0.027 MW of electricity is generated per ton of waste processed, or 1.64 MW per acre. If we assume the average American produces 4.4 pounds of waste per day, we have the potential to produce roughly 6.9 million MW of energy from our annual waste outputs, or the equivalent energy demand created by 10.28 million Americans.


The relationship between waste processed per day and energy generated across all U.S. landfill waste-to-energy operations is represented in the figure below.



Waste burning and woody biomass-to-energy “renewable energy”projects come with their own sets of problems and benefits. FracTracker saw this firsthand when visiting Kalkaska County, Michigan, this past summer. There, the forestry industry has rebounded in response to several wood biomass-to-energy projects. While these projects may provide local economic opportunity, the industry has relied disproportionately on clearcutting, such as is seen in the below photograph of a 30-acre clearcut along Sunset Trail Road:


As states diversify their energy sources away from fossil fuels and seek to increase energy efficiency per unit of economic productivity, we will likely see more and more reliance on the above practices as “bridge fuel” energy sources. However, the term “renewable” needs parameterization in order to understand the true costs and benefits of the varying energy sources it presently encompasses. The sustainability of clearcutting practices in rural areas—and the analogous waste-to-energy projects in largely urban areas—deserves further scrutiny by forest health and other environmental experts. This will require additional mapping similar to what is offered in this article, as well as land-use analysis and the quantification of how these energy generation industries enhance or degrade ecosystem services. Of equal importance will be providing a better picture of whether or not these practices actually produce sustainable and well-paid jobs, as well as their water, waste, and land-use footprints relative to fossil fuels unconventional or otherwise.


Relevant Data

All US Waste-to-Energy Operations along with waste processed and energy produced (MW)

All US Woody Biomass-to-Energy Operations along with waste processed and energy produced (MW)

Updated Pipeline Incident Analysis

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

As massive new pipeline projects continue to generate news, the existing midstream infrastructure that’s hidden beneath our feet continues to be problematic on a daily basis. Since 2010, there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion.

Chart 1: Cumulative impacts pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016. Operators are required to submit incident reports within 30 days.

Figure 1: Cumulative impacts pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016. Operators are required to submit incident reports within 30 days.

In our previous analyses, pipeline incidents occurred at a rate of 1.6 per day nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Rates exceeding 1.9 incidents per day in 2014 and 2015 have brought the average rate up to 1.7 incidents per day. Incidents have been a bit less frequent in 2016, coming in at a rate of 1.43 incidents per day, or 1.59 if we roll results back to October 4th in order to capture all incidents that are reported within the mandatory 30 day window.

Chart 1: Pipeline incidents per day for years between 2010 and 2016. Incidents after October 4, 2016 may not be included in these figures.

Figure 2: Pipeline incidents per day for years between 2010 and 2016. Incidents after October 4, 2016 may not be included in these figures.

These figures are the aggregation of three reports, namely natural gas transmission and gathering pipelines (828 incidents since 2010), natural gas distribution (736 incidents), and hazardous liquids (2,651 incidents). Not all of the hazardous liquids are petroleum related, but the vast majority are. 1,321 of the releases involved crude oil, and an additional 896 involved other liquid petroleum products, accounting for 84% of hazardous liquid incidents. The number could be higher, depending on the specific substances involved in the 399 highly volatile liquid (HVL) related incidents. The HVL category includes propane, butane, liquefied petroleum gases, ethylene, and propylene, as well as other volatile liquids that become gaseous at ambient conditions.

What is causing all of these pipeline incidents?

Figure 3: Cause of pipeline incidents for all reports received from January 1, 2010 through November 4, 2016.

Nonprofits, academics, and concerned citizens looking for accurate pipeline data will find that it is restricted, with the argument that releasing accurate pipeline data constitutes a threat to national security.  This makes little sense for several reasons. First, with over 2.4 million miles of pipelines, they are nearly omnipresent. Additionally, similar data access restrictions only apply to midstream infrastructure such as pipelines and compressor stations, whereas the locations for wells, refineries, and power plants are all publicly available, despite the presence of the same volatile hydrocarbons at these facilities. Additionally, pipelines are purposefully marked with surface placards to help prevent unintentionally impacting the infrastructure.

In fact, a quick look at the causes of pipeline incidents reveal that it it much more dangerous to not know where the pipelines are located. In the “Other Incident Cause” category (Figure 3) there are 152 incidents that were caused by unsuspecting motor vehicles. When this is combined with incidents resulting from excavation damage, we have 558 cases where “not knowing” about the pipeline’s location likely contributed to the failure. On the other hand, there are 14 incidents (only .003%) where the cause is identified as intentional. While even one case of tampering with pipeline infrastructure is unacceptable, PHMSA incident data indicate that obfuscated pipelines are 40 times more likely to cause a problem when compared to sabotage. Equipment failures and corrosion account for more than half of all incidents.

Where do these incidents occur?

PHMSA is not allowed to make accurate pipeline location data available for download, but such rules apparently do not apply to pipeline incidents. The following map shows the 4,215 pipeline releases since 2010, highlighting those that have resulted in injuries and fatalities.

Pipeline incidents in the US. Please zoom in to access specific incident data.  To see the legend and other tools, Please click here.


Pipeline Incidents by State for reports received 1/1/2010 through 11/4/2016.

Figure 4: Pipeline incidents by state for reports received 1/1/2010 through 11/4/2016.

While operators are required to submit the incident’s location as a part of their report to PHMSA, data entry errors are common in the dataset. The FracTracker Alliance has been able to identify and correct a few of the higher profile errors, such as the February 9, 2011 explosion in Allentown, PA, the report for which had mangled the latitude and longitude values so badly that the incident was rendered in Greenland. Other errors persist in the dataset, however. Since 2010, pipeline incidents have occurred in Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and 49 states (the exception being Vermont). Ten states have at least 100 incidents apiece during the past six years (see Figure 4), and more than a quarter of all pipeline incidents in that time frame have occurred in Texas.

Which operators are responsible?

Figure 5: This table shows the ten operators with the most reported incidents, along with the length of their pipeline network.

Figure 5: This table shows the ten operators with the most reported incidents, along with the length of their pipeline network.

Altogether, there are 521 pipeline operators with reported releases, although many of these are affiliated with one another in some fashion. For example, the top two results in Figure 5 are almost certainly both subsidiaries of Enterprise Products Partners, L.P.

The real outlier in Figure 5, in terms of incidents per 100 miles, is Kinder Morgan Liquid Terminals; LLC. However, this is one of ten or more companies that share the Kinder Morgan name when reporting pipeline inventories. When taken in aggregate, companies with the Kinder Morgan name accounted for 142 incidents over a reported 7,939 miles, for a rate of 1.8 incidents per 100 miles. It should be noted that this, along with all of the statistics in Figure 5, are entirely based on matching the operator name between the incident and inventory reports.  Kinder Morgan’s webpage boasts of 84,000 miles of pipelines in the US — there are numerous possible explanations for the discrepancy in pipeline length, including additional Kinder Morgan subsidiaries, as well as whether gathering lines that aren’t considered to be mains are on both lists.

The operators responsible for the most deaths from pipeline incidents since 2010 include Pacific Gas & Electric (15), Washington Gas Light (9), and Consolidated Edison Co. of New York (8). Of course, the greatest variable in whether or not a pipeline explosion kills people or not is whether or not the incident happens in a populated location. In the course of this analysis, there were 230 explosions and 635 fires over 2,500 days, meaning that there is pipeline explosion somewhere in the United States every 11 days, on average, and a fire every fourth day. The fact that only 65 of the incidents resulted in fatalities indicates that we have been rather lucky with incidents in the midstream sector.