Saturday, June 26, 2004

Replacing fossil fuels in a "clean energy" economy

A new solution to the pollution and acid rain caused by coal burning power plants is coming in the form of "woody biomass"

Burning woody biomass has not always been considered a clean technology, since it often aggravates air pollution and exacerbates respiratory disease. But a combination of some new processes with wood's natural advantages over coal can turn wood into a low-emissions energy resource. Burning woody biomass instead of coal can reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (the primary cause of acid rain) by more than 95 percent and reduce nitrous oxide (the primary component of smog) by more than 70 percent.

Public Service of New Hampshire, the company that owns and operates Schiller, plans to modify the station by replacing one of its three fossil-fuel boilers with a high efficiency, wood-fired boiler. The plant will get its fuel from locally generated wood chips, sawmill residue, and other clean low-grade wood materials and wood byproducts such as tree tops and branches normally left behind in the wood-harvesting process.

"It is a very exciting project," said Gary Long, president of Public Service. "It will create an important new market for New Hampshire's wood industry and the workers and suppliers who depend on that industry for their livelihoods."

While generating enough electricity to power approximately 50,000 homes, the boiler's conversion may spur the reduction of more than 380,000 tons of emissions annually. According to Craig Wright, a clean air official at New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, "These reductions could have notable environmental and public health benefits in the surrounding community."

Some environmentalists are cautiously optimistic. Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says the company must guarantee that the wood waste is free from toxic contaminants and that the low-grade wood materials are harvested in an environmentally responsible manner. Since errors such as mixing lead paint-covered shingles or arsenic-treated planks into a load of wood chips can create a hazard worse than coal dust, Greene calls the decision to burn waste wood "a complicated issue."

Public Service's decision to switch to a renewable energy source is influenced by innovative policy decisions made by neighboring states to the south. Massachusetts and Connecticut have both recently passed Renewable Portfolio Standards that require utilities in those states to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable power sources. These new regulations are establishing a market for renewable energy credits (RECs), which can be sold to companies that are required to either produce renewable energy themselves or buy paper credits representing the environmental benefits of an energy project.

Although just buying a credit may sound much less environmentally friendly than building a wind turbine, for example, in fact the benefits are almost identical: Revenues generated from the credits create the financial incentive for another utility to build a wind turbine or, in the case of Schiller, to convert a filthy coal boiler into a cleaner biomass boiler.

New England–based energy policies aren't the only political force driving new wood power projects in the United States. The federal departments of Energy and Agriculture recently awarded $23 million to fund 19 biomass projects with appropriations from the 2002 Farm Bill. Last July, the Department of the Interior joined with Energy and Agriculture to sign a memorandum of understanding on "Woody Biomass Utilization" that establishes consistent policies and procedures to support burning wood for power. In the West, some states that feel vulnerable to forest fires are actually offering to pay power companies to harvest more wood for fuel.

Obviously there are limits to how much woody biomass can be harvested--but that is the central dilemma we face as we enter the age of limits.


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