Some skeptical of biomass benefit

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(Host) There are a growing number of proposals to build 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 public radio stations, Nancy Cohen from WNPR reports.

(Cohen) Six years ago the Public Service Company of New Hampshire made an unorthodox decision to re-fashion 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.

(Despins) "This is the conveyor that actually transports wood directly to our boiler we are probably feeding 100 tons an hour."

(Cohen) This 50 megawatt plant is burning a half million tons of wood every year, even though coal is a more efficient fuel source

(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."

(Cohen) 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  

(Frame) "It’s a goldmine"

(Cohen) That’s Keith Frame of the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund. Frame says the Renewable Portfolio Standards are helping companies pay for the more expensive new technologies, like biomass.

(Frame) "They are actually able to produce this power at a cost and end up with a profit as opposed to a loss."

(Cohen) Renewable plants earn a profit 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 says her group supports "responsibly -designed " biomass.

(Reid) "There is a risk that the demand for the fuel for the biomass coming from our forests will be so large or will erode protection for these critical natural resources."

(Roy) "Oh, there’s some spruce needles there, looks like part of a maple leaf, there’s pieces of bark"

(Cohen) Richard Roy who buys wood for the Portsmouth plant scoops up a handful. 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

(Roy) "The long and the short of it is we grow more than we cut."

(Cohen) 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 says it’ll  generate electricty and solve another problem

(Donovan) "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."

(Cohen) Despite this environmental advantage Roger Smith of Clean Water Action says there are toxins in some construction and demolition wood and they could get into the air.

(Smith) "If it’s pressured treated wood it can contain arsenic and cadmium and other toxic pollutants and there’s really no way you can reliably sort that." 

(Cohen) 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 says you can’t assume biomass is carbon neutral

(Reid) "You actually have to do the tough math and you have to look at the actual fuel supply that’s going into any individual facility to understand its actual greenhouse gas emission impact."

(Smith) "I’d say biomass in particular is still the wild west here."

Roger Smith of Clean Water Action.

(Smith) "Citizens are going to need to keep pushing governments  to make sure they’re not causing additional problems as they try to solve the ones that they have recognized. "

(Cohen) The debate is growing just as national incentives for renewable energy are emerging.  Biomass is part of the mix

For VPR News, I’m Nancy Cohen.

Note:  Northeast Environmental Coverage is part of NPR’s local news initiative. The reporting is supported, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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