4:21 minutes (4.18 MB)
Download this Episode
There are a growing number of proposals for wood-burning biomass power plants in the northeast. Some environmentalists say wood can be a renewable low-carbon fuel. But others aren’t convinced. As part of a collaboration with northeast stations Nancy Cohen from WNPR reports.
Six years ago the Public Service Company of New Hampshire made an unorthodox decision to refashion one of its three coal-burning boilers at its power station in Portsmouth so it could burn wood. Station Manager Dick Despins points out mounds of wood floating by on a conveyor belt
“This is the conveyor that actually transports wood directly to our boiler. We are probably feeding 100 tons an hour.”
This 50 megawatt plant is burning 500,000 tons of wood every year, even though coal is a more efficient fuel source, according to Despins.
“Wood in itself, as a fuel, is not necessarily that efficient. However, the Renewable Portfolio Standards do provide the incentive to help effectively utilize wood in our process to make electricity.”
Renewable Portfolio Standards, set by states, require that a percentage of electricity comes from renewable fuel, such as wind, solar or biomass. And there’s money behind these standards.
“It’s a goldmine,” said Keith Frame of the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund. The Renewable Portfolio Standards are helping companies pay for the more expensive new technologies., like biomass, said Frame.
“They are actually able to produce this power at a cost and end up with a profit, as opposed to a loss.”
Renewable plants earn a profit is by generating a “Renewable Energy Certificate” for every megawatt hour of clean energy they produce. Electric utilities are required to buy a certain number of them. And these certificates are valuable The Portsmouth plant generates about 300,000 of them, earning about $9 million a year.
That kind of money is driving more then a dozen proposals for new biomass plants in the region. Sue Reid of the Conservation Law Foundation said her group supports “responsibly–designed“ biomass.
“There is a risk that the demand for the fuels coming from our forests and other vegetated landscapes will be so large that it will erode protection for these critical natural resources.”
Richard Roy, who buys wood for the Portsmouth plant, scoops up a handful.
“Oh, there’s some spruce needles. There’s lwhat ooks like part of a maple leaf there. There’s pieces of bark.”
This plant burns what’s known as junk wood: tree tops and branches that can’t be sold for lumber. Roy says there’s no shortage of it.
“The long and the short of it is we’re still growing more than we cut .”
Other biomass plants burn a different kind of junk wood; construction and demolition debris. Daniel Donovan wants to build a biomass plant in Plainfield, Connecticut. He said it’ll generate electricty and solve another problem.
“We’re taking wood that would normally go into a landfill anyway so we actually have fuel that we’re actually handling in a better manner than had been handled previously.”
Despite this environmental advantage Roger Smith of Clean Water Action said there are toxins in some construction and demolition wood and they could get into the air.
“If it’s pressured-treated wood that contains arsenic and cadmium and other toxic pollutants there’s really no way that you’re going to be able to reliably sort that out.”
But the state of Connecticut is requiring the Plainfield plant to hire an independent monitor to make sure the toxic wood is sorted out. And the Natural Resources Defense Council says the Plainfield plant is well designed.
Besides the controversies over wood safety and renewability, there are also questions about greenhouse gasses. Supporters say the carbon dioxide that’s released when wood is burned is fully absorbed by new trees that are planted. But Sue Reid said you can’t assume biomass is carbon neutral.
“You actually have to do the tough math and you have to look at the actual fuel supply that is going into any individual facility to understand its greenhouse gas emissions impact.”
Roger Smith of Clean Water Action said government is still figuring biomass out.
“I’d say biomass in particular is still the wild west here. Citizens are going to need to keep pushing their governments to make sure they’re not causing additional problems as they try to solve ones that they have recognized. “
The debate is growing just as national incentives for renewable energy are emerging. Biomass is part of the mix.
Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative.