FirstEnergy retooling coal plant to burn biomass from fast-growing trees and grasses
The best and cheapest near-term strategy for reducing coal plant CO2 emissions without forcing utilities to simply walk away from their entire capital investment is to replace that coal with biomass. Utilities can replace the coal partly, aka cofiring (see “If Obama stops dirty coal, as he must, what will replace it? Part 2: An intro to biomass cofiring“) or wholly, aka repowering (see “Southern Company embraces the only practical and affordable way to ‘capture’ emissions at a coal plant today “” run it on biomass“).
Cofiring could generate some 26 GW of high-availability low-carbon baseload power by 2020. Energy Daily (subs. req’d) notes of the growing trend:
Over the past three years, Southern Co., Northeast Utilities, Dynegy, Xcel Energy, and DTE Energy have either converted plants or are in the process of doing so.
This month, another major utility joined the biomass bandwagon:
In a move cheered by Ohio officials, FirstEnergy Corp. announced Wednesday plans to re-power two units of its R. E. Burger coal-fired power plant to burn biomass to produce up to 312 megawatts, making the 54-year-old facility one of the nation’s largest biomass power plants and the first biomass plant in FirstEnergy’s generation portfolio.
The two Burger units had been targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review provisions. Under terms of a 2005 consent decree settling the EPA charges, FirstEnergy faced a Tuesday midnight deadline to decide whether to close the plant, install pollution controls to allow continued coal-fired generation or re-power the units to burn biomass.
Company officials said a variety of factors led FirstEnergy to choose the $200 million retrofit option, including the impact on local residents of closing the plant, Ohio’s renewable energy mandate and the increasing likelihood of future federal carbon regulation.
So it turns out you can meet renewable mandates, cut carbon use, and preserve jobs. That is indeed a win-win-win. In fact, you can even create jobs:
“This project will help jump-start the biomass renewable energy industry here in Ohio and also serve as a model for projects throughout the United States,” Strickland said. “In addition to retaining jobs at the Burger Plant, this project has the potential to create additional jobs and investments, particularly as biomass fuel suppliers work to meet the needs of this operation and as other renewable energy projects are developed in Ohio.”
Here are some more details on the “plant” plant and its fuel:
When the retrofit is completed, the Burger Plant initially will use wood wastes and other biomass to fuel the facility. FirstEnergy’s goal, however, is to operate the plant as a “closed loop” biomass plant, which means it will use fuel derived from trees grown to serve as feedstock for the biomass fuel, said company spokeswoman Ellen Raines.
As a closed-loop biomass plant, the project would be carbon-neutral. The energy crop trees would act as a carbon sink, storing carbon in the trees’ tissues and roots. When harvested and burned, the stored carbon would be released, but the net carbon footprint would be zero, Raines said.
FirstEnergy has a tentative agreement with Renafuel LLC, a subsidiary of Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources–a global iron mining company–to take fast-growing, bio-engineered cottonwood trees and grasses grown in Ohio and press the biomass into cubes in a new factory Renafuel is building. The cubes will be pulverized and blown into the Burger Plant’s retrofitted boilers in much the same way coal plants use pulverized coal.
Raines said state and local elected officials urged FirstEnergy to keep the Burger Plant in operation to preserve local jobs and continue local and state tax payments.
In addition, putting controls on the facility to allow continued coal use would have cost $330 million, more than half again as much as the $200 million cost of the biomass retrofit.
But Raines said a new Ohio renewables mandate played a key role in the decision to convert the plant to burn biomass. The law requires utilities to obtain 12.5 percent of their power from renewable resources, and at least half of that must be generated within Ohio.
“The renewables mandate was one of the big factors, and with the prospects of [federal] carbon legislation, having a carbon-neutral facility is a real benefit,” she said.
I don’t make stock recommendations here, but somebody who does cited my first cofiring post, so WordPress directed me to “Andritz Group: Investing in Wood Pellets.” Again, I tend to think it is a mistake to recommend stocks based on the technology sector they are in. A company with good solar or wind technology, for instance, can fail for reasons having nothing to do with their technology or market space — bad management being the most obvious reason. But the article is an interesting one on the wood pellets market.
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