McCaskill visits Columbia to discuss alternative energy options in Missouri

Monday, January 16, 2012 | 6:58 p.m. CST; updated 10:58 a.m. CST, Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Columbia Director of Power and Light Tad Johnsen gave Sen. Claire McCaskill a quick tour of Columbia Municipal Power Plant on Monday.

*CORRECTION: Sen. Claire McCaskill voted to allow debate on cap-and-trade legislation, but she opposed the legislation as it stood; a statement from a source in earlier version of this story suggested otherwise.

COLUMBIA — The promise of biomass weighed against the cost of alternative energy sources was the key theme of the day when U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., visited the Columbia Municipal Power Plant on Monday.

McCaskill met with representatives from MU, MFA Oil, the Columbia Water and Light Department, the Missouri Energy Initiative, Missouri University of Science and Technology, the Missouri Public Utility Alliance and Boone Electric Cooperative.


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The delegates discussed plans to invest in renewable energy sources and create jobs in the energy sector. The meeting was part of McCaskill’s Hometown Energy Tour, during which she has spent several days traveling around the state gathering official opinions. McCaskill is also seeking re-election to the Senate in November.

“The main focus of her tour this time around has been listening,” McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard said.

Speakers explained the steps their institutions or companies are taking and the progress they're making in research, but their excitement about boosting efficiency and promoting alternative energy sources was balanced against concerns about cost. 

Water and Light Director Tad Johnsen said that because it takes time and money to make changes, it's important when talking about new energy strategies to ask: "What benefit does it actually bring?"

Johnsen noted that the Columbia Municipal Power Plant does mix some biomass with coal as an extra source of fuel and that Missouri is a good state for producing biomass. Still, he said, those who would like to see a full-scale conversion to the alternative fuel have to consider the startup costs.

Many of the speakers said biomass is also becoming important in their research and fuel production.

LaBombard said McCaskill recognizes the high cost of switching to alternative energy sources, and therefore she does “not expect to see a full transition to renewable resources in her lifetime.”

Still, LaBombard said, McCaskill is trying to find ways to invest in renewable methods to someday achieve this full transition.

McCaskill said Columbia’s method of using both coal and biomass is a good step toward that goal, partly because Missouri has farmland that is good for producing biomass, such as switchgrass, but not fit for growing food. 

Sarah Steelman, a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, agrees that biomass mixed with coal is a good option, but she also worries about costs.

"This is not an either-or question between coal or biomass," Steelman said in an email. "I support the development of all domestic energy alternatives to ensure that Missouri families and business have access to low cost, reliable energy. What I don’t support is the practice of propping up certain alternatives such as ethanol through government subsidies that end up costing taxpayers more instead of benefiting them."*

Todd Akin, another Republican candidate, indicates on his website that he also supports the "all of the above" approach described by Steelman. And a third Republican candidate, John Brunner, said on his website that he worries that new energy regulations that McCaskill supports could cause energy bills to rise dramatically.

Neither Akin nor Brunner were available for comment.

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Richard Saunders January 17, 2012 | 3:59 p.m.

If only one could harness the energy otherwise wasted by politicians flapping their lips...

(Report Comment)
Harold Sutton January 17, 2012 | 4:39 p.m.

Likewise, their entourage!!
The costs of transporting, feeding, and housing of the "entourage" is huge at times. And the wasted time of people (mainly workers who still have a job) who must change their routine to accomodate the Photo ops, could be better used providing some temporary assistance for laid-off workers.

(Report Comment)
Harold Sutton January 17, 2012 | 4:43 p.m.

My correction! I should have said that the costs of the "tour" could be better used providing for those who have been laid-off/lost their jobs.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 17, 2012 | 5:07 p.m.


We're gonna get into trouble with this.

You simply cannot take biomass from one place and transport it to another without taking macro- and micro-nutrients (i.e., elements) with it.

And that has direct, adverse effects upon soil.

Just ask any tobacco farmer, past, present, and future.

Those elements will have to be replaced. And *that* requires mines and significant energy expenditures.

Here's some real data from MFA's agronomy guide:

Average lbs of chemicals removed per 1 ton of dry warm-season grass:

Nitrogen: 35
P2O5: 10
K20: 35
Calcium: 10
Magnesium 2
Sulfur: 2

And these are just the macro-nutrients. Also involved are the micro-nutrients like Se, Fe, Mo, B, Cl, I, Ni, etc.

Why do you think your mowed lawn needs fertilization each year? Do you really think a large field of grass will be any different?

Biomass is certainly carbon neutral, but it isn't neutral for the other elements when soil quality is considered.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders January 17, 2012 | 5:33 p.m.

Awww, c'mon Michael, don't you know that burning off all of the nutrients from our topsoil is green? Costs? Why you'd have to be heartless to even consider them! Besides, the informed voters have spoken, and their agents have little choice but to carry out their agenda as promised. Also, I'm sure some giant chemical company will be happy to replace these pollutants with safer, synthetic substitutes.

Perhaps this will be the solution to the obesity "epidemic?"


(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum January 17, 2012 | 5:40 p.m.

"Biomass: We're gonna get into trouble with this."

"Coal/Oil/Natural Gas: We're in trouble with this..."

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 17, 2012 | 5:48 p.m.

Richard: Until we figure out a way to harness sunlight energy with a cheap and readily-available catalyst for the purpose of converting seawater into hydrogen and oxygen, everything else is just a political agenda sold with pseudoscience.

And, of course, that catalyst has to be prepared from one-or-more of the 92 letters of the chemical alphabet. That's all we have; there are no more.


Have you seen the latest version of Missouri Resources distributed by MO DNR? Winter 2012, Volume 29, #1: Page 9, entitled "More than Iron on Pea Ridge". One sentence struck me: "And large wind turbines need more than two tons of rare earth elements to work..."

And, although China has the bulk of the rare earths, apparently Missouri has some of those elements, too.

Will we be able to mine them?

I dunno. Ask the Pb people.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 17, 2012 | 5:49 p.m.

Louis: Yes, let's jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Did your comment help anything?

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum January 17, 2012 | 6:07 p.m.

Renewable vs. non-renewable -- see the difference? The appropriate cliche would be "choose the lesser of two evils".

Did yours?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 17, 2012 | 6:09 p.m.

I keep repeating this because I think it needs repeating. Biomass when combusted is like any other combustible fuel in that the process of combustion releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Do these boimasses have caloric values as high as natural gas, fuel oil, or bituminous coal? If they do not, then you are going to need to burn more of them to create the same amount of thermal work, creating even more carbon dioxide in the process. Maybe some biomasses won't have the caloric value to reach the working temperatures required, although for electric power generation that shouldn't be a problem.

Also, while there are costs involved in bringing natural gas and the other fuels I've cited above to the point (installation) of combustion there will be similar costs for biomass. One assumes this is not going to be a situation like Shakespeare's "Macbeth" where the biomass (like the forest in the play) will magically come to the "castle."

PS: In parts of the South, planing mill sawdust (a very fine sawdust) has been used as a fuel for firing ceramic bricks. Hot zone temperatures in the tunnel kilns run from 1,800-2,200 degress F, depending upon brick composition. This can be done so long as ash from the burned sawdust isn't liquid at hot zone temperatures. If the ash is liquid, it sticks to the bricks.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 17, 2012 | 6:10 p.m.

Louis: The part you do NOT understand is that biomass IS renewable with respect to carbon....but NOT for any other soil element that is essential for plant life.

Removing plant material from one place to another is NOT sustainable! Those elements must be replaced.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum January 17, 2012 | 6:21 p.m.

So you're arguing that plants will not regrow in a biomass plantation?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 17, 2012 | 6:27 p.m.

Louis: Not without input for all elements taken from the soil over time. Some elements will give out earlier than others.

This is like a grocery store. If you buy stuff and take it from the store, there will be no future produce unless it is restocked. Soils have elemental inventories, too. Again, study the tobacco and pineapple industries of the past if you don't believe me. Or just don't fertilize your lawn each year...just mow it and rake the debris to a ditch. What will happen to your 0.25 acre lawn is identical to what will happen to a 100 acre field.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum January 17, 2012 | 7:55 p.m.

So, you dump fertilizer on your lawn? Where does this fertilizer come from? Is it in the form of chemicals (derived from other terrestrial locations) or is it an organic substance removed from some other system? Do you not think that organic matter in the form of compost could be used to replenish plantation soil or would transplanting anything from one place to another be too deleterious to the environment, in your view? And to that, what is your view -- do you posit that we continue to frack, extract oil from bituminous deposits, conduct deep-sea drilling (and spilling), and build pipelines? Does this all-or-nothing view seem at all utilitarian to you? Would it not be more wise to diversify our energy options while working on a more permanent solution or do you propose we carry on with business as usual? Your stance is unclear. Certainly, I understand that nutrients will be removed from the system and that if we deplete the system of nutrients the practice is not sustainable. I think you're being a bit obtuse.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 17, 2012 | 8:50 p.m.

Louis says, "Certainly, I understand that nutrients will be removed from the system and that if we deplete the system of nutrients the practice is not sustainable."

Good. You understand.

Now consider where those added-back nutrients will come from. You mentioned two....synthetic and composted fertilizer.

And then ask if either one will be properly balanced with equimolar amounts of nutrients removed from each and every field. Or, in the case of compost, the source and amount required.

This is decidedly not simple in spite of what advocates say...or, in this case, don't say. The biochemistry and science of soils is much more complex than you've been told or learned. Believing biomass is without serious soil and environmental problems is a prime example of drinking kool-aid and not using common sense.

As for current carbon sources/sinks, yes....we'll have to continue for a while. Perhaps even escalate. However, the overall goal should be to reduce use of carbon sinks by 25 to 100-fold. Some uses will be absolutely necessary since such sinks, particularly oil, provide a source of starting materials for many things.....materials impossible to synthesize in bulk without significant inputs of energy and the concomitant waste. Personally, I advocate nukes as an intermediate weigh-station coupled with a Manhattan-style effort to find that catalyst to harvest energy from the sun.

As for wind and biomass, I say both are hindering rather than helping. They are an awful, costly, politically-based diversion from what we really should be doing.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 17, 2012 | 8:54 p.m.

Louis asks: Where does this fertilizer come from? Is it in the form of chemicals (derived from other terrestrial locations).

For synthetic fertilizer, do you know the source of the nitrogen contained in ammonia, ammonium nitrate, or urea?

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum January 17, 2012 | 9:03 p.m.

Society wastes enough every day to easily compensate for anything that might be lost -- we simply need to manage more wisely and make allocations where necessary. In terms of soil, current energy extraction processes (e.g. mountain top removal, hydraulic fracturing, extraction from bituminous deposits) are far more injurious than gradual nutrient depletion. You should also consider the fact that current practices are exponentially more deleterious to our most valuable resource -- fresh, ground-water. Furthermore, no governing body on this planet is willing, or able, to implement your 'final solution'. Escalation of current practices will only expedite the impending global water crisis.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 17, 2012 | 10:49 p.m.

Louis: I dunno. Do you know what you get when you combust hydrogen and oxygen gases originally made from seawater?

As for your statement "In terms of soil, current energy extraction processes (e.g. mountain top removal, hydraulic fracturing, extraction from bituminous deposits) are far more injurious than gradual nutrient depletion."

It's just plain wrong.

Ask an ecologist in Brazil.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum January 17, 2012 | 11:36 p.m.

Wrong is a question of morality. I'm talking about correctness -- i.e. what is necessary to sustain human existence. You're talking about a pipe-dream where we ramp up mountain top removal and deep sea drilling in order to build-up our nuclear reactors so we can work to an immediate solution in the form of solar energy. While that sounds great and everything, we live in the real world where that will never happen.

As to this un-named Brasilian ecologist -- what's his name?

And don't forget to ask some one who's tap water catches fire about the benefits of hydraulic fracturing!

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking January 18, 2012 | 8:14 a.m.

Louis Schneebaum wrote:

"You should also consider the fact that current practices are exponentially more deleterious to our most valuable resource -- fresh, ground-water."

Agriculture is currently the largest source of water pollution. Ramping up biomass production will make this problem worse.

There's also the issue of the petroleum and natural gas inputs required to grow biomass, whether food or fuel. All biomass in the US is harvested, transported, and processed with fossil fuels. Because plants are very inefficient at converting solar energy into biomass, the amount of energy remaining after processing energy has been accounted for is typically a small fraction of the total energy input.

Biomass is the "solution du jour" because it is still relatively cheap (because petroleum is cheap), and allows dispatchable power to be made with modifications to existing equipment. It's not a particularly viable long term energy source except for niche applications.


(Report Comment)
frank christian January 18, 2012 | 8:46 a.m.

Louis Schneebaum - I note that you are quite adept at trumpeting each supposed crisis.

Would you mind adding an address of "one who's tap water catches fire" due to hydraulic fracturing?

Have you been reading the "Water Wars" books? There are several and was wondering if any mention desalination of sea water. Saudi Arabia is now quite adapt at this and Tampa Bay in FL is providing 10% of their drinking water with a plant online in 2007. Perth, Australia is also into it. Reverse osmosis systems can be purchased online for under $300.

Plug in "facts of water crisis" and one obtains lists of those without an abundance of clean water. None that I read mentioned what the government of those people is doing about their shortage. It seems better for some to scream Fire! In the case of water it would seem that as long as there is sea water (which we are told is rising everywhere) there will be no need to go to war for it.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 18, 2012 | 9:23 a.m.

Louis asks, "As to this un-named Brasilian ecologist -- what's his name?"

Beats me; there's a bunch of them. They are all upset at cutting down more rain forests because the soil in newly-opened fields keeps getting exhausted. Thanks for reminding me of another example of poor soil stewardship in addition to the already mentioned tobacco and pineapple industries.

I agree with Mark; biomass is a current solution-du-jour with political undertones that totally ignores soil science and basic plant biochemistry. Not once...not even one single time....have I read a proponent address non-green biomass issues like (1) how to fertilize, (2) fertilize with what?, (3) how to harvest/bale and at what energy cost?, (4) how to transport?, (5) how to concentrate the energy into manageable pellets?, etc. To date, only Ellis and...I think...Mark have addressed the energetics of biomass on these pages; I have no idea why the Missourian has done no in-depth reporting on these non-green issues, given that we're using the stuff in our boilers. You'd think the ready-to-use biomass just showed up at the power plant like Santa Claus delivered it at midnight.

There's a non-green side to going green, but no one wants to discuss it, including journalists. That means some kool-aid drinking is going on.

(Report Comment)

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