EPA clean air regulations might dim green luster of biomass plants in Oregon and nationwide
Scott Learn, The Oregonian
The Oregonian Wood chips are piled and ready for burning at D.R. Johnson Co.’s Prairie City power plant in 2009. Biomass supporters warn that federal rules could smother big plans in Oregon and nationwide to burn more wood for heat and energy.
Freres Lumber fired up its biomass plant in 2007 as part of the green power rush, banking on tax breaks to generate steam and electricity at its Lyons mill by burning forest slash and mill waste. But proposed rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — including new regulations on boiler pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the plants — could force the company to sample emissions more and put “pollution controls on top of pollution controls,” Freres executives say. The proposed regulations would make it very difficult to operate the plant, says Kyle Freres, a vice president. “And I really don’t think new plants would have much incentive to start up.”
Biomass, or using vegetation for fuel, has basked in a green glow in recent years, winning subsidies, bipartisan political support and a renewable energy designation in Oregon and nationwide that groups it with nonpolluting solar, wave and wind power. Oregon backers are hoping wood-fired power plants will spur thinning in the state’s abundant national forests, create thousands of rural jobs and provide a domestic source of fuel. But the industry is in its infancy, supporters say, and new EPA rules could kill it.
“Biomass energy is economically marginal,” says Thomas McLain, head of wood science and engineering at Oregon State University and one of 100-plus forestry scientists who expressed concern about the proposed EPA rules in a July letter to Senate leaders. “Anything you do to (increase) the cost means it won’t happen. It will go away.” Environmental groups, community activists and other scientists say the scrutiny is overdue. Simply assuming that forest biomass is carbon neutral — as global and national standards do now — could lead to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions from wood burning that defeats efforts to quickly contain global warming, they warn.
Even with pollution controls, emissions of carbon dioxide, lung-damaging particulates and other pollutants from burning wood can be greater than burning coal or natural gas. And classifying biomass as renewable power could encourage overdevelopment of wood burning power plants, threatening forests in the long term, critics say. Under current greenhouse-gas accounting, substituting wood for coal in a power plant would drop the plant’s assumed carbon emissions to zero. Other options such as solar and wind “call into question the notion of biomass being renewable,” says Kyle Ash, a Greenpeace lobbyist in Washington, D.C. “Obviously, you can regrow trees,” Ash says. “But we want to swap out fossil fuels for a permanent, sustainable source, and biomass is outside of that.”
Emissions vs. emissions
Biomass was a small part of the proposed “tailoring” rules the EPA unveiled in May after the Supreme Court upheld the agency’s authority to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. But it sparked outrage in biomass circles by equating biomass carbon emissions with emissions from coal- and natural gas-fired plants. That’s unfair, biomass supporters say. Extracting and burning fossil fuels adds carbon to the earth’s carbon cycle. Wood is part of that cycle, and the carbon released in burning it will be offset by new trees that pull carbon from the atmosphere.
The EPA comment period on the biomass rules closed Monday, with any changes scheduled to begin in January. Separately, the agency is considering rules that would tighten regulation of emissions from boilers for industry, universities and other large users. A final boiler rule is expected in December. Requirements for reducing greenhouse gases haven’t been defined yet. Biomass supporters worry they’d eventually be forced to install new pollution controls or buy carbon offsets if all carbon emissions are considered equal.
More than 40 plants operate in Oregon, mainly at lumber and paper mills, including some that provide electricity to the grid as well as steam heat for their own use. The U.S. Department of Energy expects biomass to supply 14percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, up from just more than 1percent now.
Biomass energy also comes from burning agricultural waste, including straw from grass farms, another big opportunity in Oregon. But the greenhouse gas controversy centers mostly on forest biomass.
Critics agree that felling trees for a biomass plant would eventually be carbon neutral, as long as new trees were planted to take up the carbon released by burning the old ones. The problem: absorbing the carbon released into the atmosphere could take decades.
A study released in June for the Massachusetts state government concluded that burning forest biomass releases more carbon than burning coal, oil or natural gas. Even accounting for the regrowth of the harvested forest, making up that “carbon debt” would take from five years, if wood replaces oil-fired thermal burners, to 90 years, if wood replaces a natural gas-fired power plant.
Paying a carbon debt
But Clint Bentz, a small woodland owner outside Scio and chairman of the American Forest Foundation, says critics aren’t looking at the real world, where mill waste, agricultural waste and forest residues are the main fuel for biomass plants. Slash piles, a mix of treetops and small limbs, are typically left to rot or are burned on logging sites, releasing the carbon anyway and with no pollution controls. Thinning small trees and clearing overcrowded forests can generate healthier greenhouse-gas-absorbing stands and help reduce insect infestations and fires, which send millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air.
The same Massachusetts study, by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, concluded that the state’s biomass producers would have to use whole trees because of the lack of a timber market. But it said biomass plants that used only forest residues could make up roughly two-thirds of their carbon debt within 10 years. When it comes to big trees, land owners make far more money selling them for lumber than they would selling it to a biomass plant, Bentz says.
“I just don’t see people whacking down the forest to put in a cogeneration plant,” he says. “There are much higher and better uses for the material.” Politicians, both Republican and Democrat, are pressuring the EPA to back off biomass. The list features 37 U.S. senators, including both of Oregon’s, and the Western Governors’ Association. The political enthusiasm makes critics nervous, reminding them of the few-questions-asked rush to subsidize corn ethanol, whose environmental benefits are now hotly contested. Expanding forest biomass could spur removal of too much forest waste, taking needed nutrients out of the forest. It could also encourage land owners to switch to faster growing, non-native trees. The arguments tend to run to absolutes, either counting all greenhouse gas emissions from biomass or not counting any. In calling for detailed comments, the EPA signaled it’s trying to account for the nuances.
“I actually think the EPA is trying to do the right thing,” says Ash of Greenpeace. –Scott Learn
Najafi Cos. hopes to buy biomass plant
by Ryan Randazzo -
The Arizona Republic
Phoenix-based private-investment firm Najafi Cos. hopes to buy a troubled $53 million biomass power plant near Snowflake for $4.75 million in Bankruptcy Court.
The investors are seeking a quick deal because the plant is running out of wood-chip fuel and needs to replenish its stockpile before winter if it’s going to stay open, a Najafi official said.
The plant in east-central Arizona opened in June 2008 and employs about 30 people.
It burns wood chips from trees cleared from the surrounding forest and paper sludge from the adjacent paper mill to make electricity.
“We here at Najafi Companies are very interested in green power and renewables,” Najafi partner Peter Woog said Wednesday. “We are very familiar with what they are doing at this plant. We would like to see more of these types of projects and concepts going on here in Arizona.”
The plant’s developers said it was a $53 million project when it opened, but court documents have listed the current value of the assets at more than $64 million.
Najafi would invest much more in the plant than the purchase price if the deal went through, Woog said.
But Najafi could have competition. Court documents list 39 interested buyers, including Salt River Project; Iberdrola Renewables, which runs a wind farm near the plant; and other energy companies from Alberta, Canada, to New York and Texas.If any of those companies still have interest in the plant and have the finances to qualify as buyers, they will have the opportunity to outbid Najafi at an Oct. 1 bankruptcy hearing.CoBank ACB of Greenwood Village, Colo., is owed approximately $11.8 million from the plant and will be paid with the $4.75 million from the proposed sale. The bank agrees to the sale terms and conditions, the plant’s receiver, David M. Reaves, said in court filings.”The receiver believes the proposed purchase price . . . is fair, reasonable and represents the highest and best offer that could be obtained for such assets,” Reaves said.
Getting a new owner soon is important because of the dwindling fuel supply and because the plant’s operators have delayed or forgone significant maintenance, Woog said. “Winter is coming, and we need to get fuel into the plant so we have it for the winter months,” Woog said, adding that he is confident that the company can gather the needed wood through existing contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and new contracts, if needed. The young plant has had a variety of problems. It hasn’t run as well as expected using sludge from the paper mill, has experienced more shutdowns than anticipated and has lost fuel to fires in its wood-chip piles, according to court documents and other regulatory filings. After less than a year in operation, the original developer put the plant up for sale. Now, State Street Bank of Boston owns a 99 percent stake in the plant.
After defaulting on loan payments and having other financial difficulties, the plant was placed under the direction of a court-appointed receiver in April. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July.
The plant had been selling its power to SRP and Arizona Public Service Co. The utilities consider biomass a renewable power source. Much of the fuel comes from small trees that would otherwise be cut and burned in controlled fires to prevent wildfires. Some fuel also was salvaged from forests burned in wildfires.
But SRP notified the operators it was canceling its power-purchase deal because the plant had defaulted on the contract. The operators tried unsuccessfully to preserve the pact through the courts.
SRP stopped buying power from the plant in August, but APS signed a one-year deal to buy the additional power that SRP had been taking.
“We want to keep it running,” APS spokesman Steven Gotfried said. SRP officials said the plant had not operated as reliably as forecast and that their original contract had been rewritten several times so that SRP was paying about 40 percent more for power than originally negotiated. The utility will consider buying power from the plant again under a new owner, SRP spokesman Scott Harelson said. Although SRP is listed as one of the interested buyers in court filings, Harelson said, the municipal utility does not intend to bid on the plant at the upcoming hearing.
Najafi’s other investments include purchasing the troubled Chandler-based homebuilder Trend Homes in 2008, also in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.
The prior year, Najafi announced its intent to invest $100 million in alternative energy through a new portfolio, Energy Capital Investments.
Infinia, InnovaTek Win U.S. Grants
Headlines from Xconomy
Two companies from the Tri-Cities, Kennewick, WA-based Infinia and Richland, WA-based InnovaTek, have received commercialization grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. Infinia, the developer of solar power generators, is getting $1.5 million for what the Department of Energy calls a “high-efficiency maintenance-free cryocooler” for high-temperature superconductors. InnovaTek will receive $2.2 million to generate power from what the DOE calls “an integrated biomass reformer and solid oxide fuel cell.” Infinia and InnovaTek were among 33 companies around the country to get the government grants, which totaled $57 million.
Talk about the power of human energy
QuestPoint:Watch out solar and electric vehicles. A British company, GENeco uses human poop as car fuel for the Bio-Bug. The Bio-Bug runs on methane gas generated during the sewage treatment process.Waste flushed down the toilets of just 70 homes in Bristol is enough to power the Bio-Bug for a year, based on an annual mileage of 10,000 miles. With support from the South West Regional Development Agency, GENeco, a Wessex Water-owned company, imported specialist equipment to treat gas generated at Bristol sewage treatment works in Avonmouth to power the VW Beetle in a way that doesn’t affect its performance.
Mohammed Saddiq, GENeco’s general manager, said he was confident that methane from sewage sludge could be used as an alternative energy source and was an innovative way of powering company vehicles. He said: “Our site at Avonmouth has been producing biogas for many years which we use to generate electricity to power the site and export to the National Grid.“With the surplus gas we had available we wanted to put it to good use in a sustainable and efficient way.
“We decided to power a vehicle on the gas offering a sustainable alternative to using fossil fuels which we so heavily rely on in the UK. “If you were to drive the car you wouldn’t know it was powered by biogas as it performs just like any conventional car. It is probably the most sustainable car around.”
Countries including India and China use compressed natural gas (CNG) to power vehicles and a number of companies in the UK are now using CNG mainly to fuel buses and commercial vehicles. In Sweden, more than 11,500 vehicles already run on biomethane produced from sewage plants. But using biogas from sewage sludge is yet to take off in the UK despite a significant amount being produced everyday at sewage plants around the country.
To use biogas as vehicle fuel without affecting vehicle performance or reliability the gas needs to be treated – a process called biogas upgrading. It involves carbon dioxide being separated from the biogas using specialist equipment. If all the biogas produced at Avonmouth was converted to run cars it would avoid around 19,000 tonnes of CO2.
“Biomethane cars could be just as important as electric cars, and the water regulator Ofwat should promote the generation of as much biogas as possible through sewage works in the fight against climate change.”GENeco believes that more gas will be produced at its Avonmouth site when the company embarks on its latest green venture to recycle food waste. Mr Saddiq said: “Waste flushed down the toilets in homes in the city provides power for the Bio-Bug, but it won’t be long before further energy is produced when food waste is recycled at our sewage works.
“It will mean that both human waste and food waste will be put to good use in a sustainable way that diverts waste from going to landfill.”Bath-based Greenfuel Company converted the Beetle so it could run on biogas while bosses from GENeco ran a workshop at a University of Bath event for teenagers from schools in Bath and North East Somerset to come up with ideas for the car’s design.
Mr Saddiq added: “The choice of car was inspired by students who took part in a workshop. They thought it would be appropriate that the poo-powered car should be the classic VW Beetle Bug because bugs naturally breakdown waste at sewage works to start the treatment process which goes on to produce the energy.”