Burn, Baby, Burn: Biomass Capacity Continues to Grow

CampFire-main_FullA Wisconsin utility has partnered with a paper manufacturer to build the state’s first large-scale biomass plant. We Energies plans to build the 50 Mw, $250 million plant next to Domtar Corporation’s Rothschild, WI paper mill.

The Department of Energy recently released $21 million in funds for various biomass projects nationwide, contributing to a steady, if not exactly overwhelming stream of biomass plants announced or proposed nationwide. The Wisconsin project would be one of the largest biomass plants in the country if and when it is completed. The largest in the US is the New Hope Powerplant in South Bay, Florida, which produces 140 Mw of electricity from burning sugarcane.

Wood Burning Synergy

As is increasingly the case in the industry, the paper mill already gets a significant percentage of its energy from burning excess wood and paper byproducts. The new plant will use fuel gathered from surrounding forests to provide enough electricity for an additional 40,000 homes. We Energies estimates the power plant will provide 400 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs, including independent wood suppliers and haulers, and hopes to complete it by 2013, pending approval by state regulators.

Domtar, which bills itself as the Sustainable Paper Company, gets nearly 80% of the power used in its plants from burning biomass, and has consistently lowered its GHG emissions over the last decade.

Environmental Peace Offering?

The project meets the conditions of a law suit settled last year by We Energies and other utilities concerning power plant construction on the shore of Lake Michigan. Environmental groups argued that a water intake pipe for a new power plant violated the Clean Water Act. The utilities, as part of the settlement, agreed to fund $100 million in Lake Michigan environmental projects over 25 years. In addition, We Energies proposed the biomass plant, according to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

Apparently the utility also committed to expanding its solar power capacity in sunny Wisconsin.

Biomass: A Tricky Balance

In theory, burning biomass has a net zero carbon impact, because whatever fuel is used, for instance, wood, has already gathered CO2 and other GHG from the atmosphere as it grew. Biofuel crop growers claim some of their crops are actually carbon negative, because they suck CO2 out of the atmosphere during the growth cycle and deposit it underground in their root systems.

However, critics contend the energy cost of transporting biomass to the power plant outweighs any carbon benefit, unless the the plant is within 50 or so miles of the source. The Wisconsin plant plans to get its wood fuel from forests within 75 miles of the plant. Burning biomass also contributes to air quality issues.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

2 responses

  1. I don’t have a problem with biomass…but I do wonder about “large scale”. Do we really want to continue producing electricity centrally (with the large scale infrastructure requirements and transmission power losses), while smaller, highly efficient biomass electricity generators (for communities/individual houses) are commercially available ?

  2. Our company, in partnership with an ag business, has developed a way to densify crop stover. This will significantly reduce transportation costs and increase burn times. Any suggestions of folks to speak with to bring this to market?

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