Humans have burned trees for energy since the beginning of time, but, I ask you, does that make it an appropriate way for electricity companies to generate energy in today's high-tech society?
According to current North Carolina law, the seemingly innocuous, and oft misunderstood, definition of "biomass," burning trees is A-OK. At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering regulating biomass in the same way it regulates fossil fuels because, despite its harmless-sounding name, the bottom line is biomass equals burning something — whether it's trash or trees — and that means air pollution.
In Ohio, where Duke Energy, a Charlotte-based energy company, also operates, burning biomass to generate electricity is also on the table, though, it appears, according to The Columbus Dispatch, those plans may be scrapped.
Here's a snippet from their recent report:
Plans to burn wood instead of coal at nine Ohio power plants now might do little more than fill state filing cabinets.
For a while, utility companies were gung-ho on burning wood as a renewable source of electricity and praised the idea as a way to meet a state mandate to cut down on coal.
The first public sign of trouble came on Nov. 17, when FirstEnergy announced that converting its R.E. Burger coal-fired power station into a "biomass" plant would cost too much. Located near Shadyside in Belmont County, Burger instead will be used only during peak electricity demand.
Officials with all of Ohio's major utilities, including Columbus-based American Electric Power, are now sounding equally discouraged about eight other proposed biomass projects. In all, the projects promised to power as many as 260,000 Ohio homes.
"It's an option, but one that's on the back burner for us," said Sally Thelen, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, which had proposed burning wood and plant wastes at three power stations along the Ohio River.
The projects were submitted to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio over the past two years to help meet a 2008 state mandate that power companies produce 12.5 percent of their electricity from advanced and renewable sources by 2025. Wood, a "biomass," is considered a renewable source.
Melissa McHenry, an AEP spokeswoman, said the company will still conduct biomass tests at its Muskingum River plant. One problem, AEP said, was that it could not find wood or plant fuel at the right price.
"The cost has not been competitive with the other options for renewable energy," McHenry said, referring to solar and wind power projects.
Read the entire article, by Spencer Hunt, here.
But, according to the Charlotte Business Journal, Duke Energy's plans to burn North Carolina trees is still a major part of the company's so-called renewable energy production plans:
Duke has made wood biomass a staple of its plans for meeting N.C. requirements for energy produced from renewable sources. But in North Carolina, wood remains a plentiful resource, and Duke Carolinas spokesman Jason Walls says the company still intends to count on a large contribution from that source.
Read the entire article, by John Downey, here.
You know what else North Carolina has in plenitude? Coastline. So, why isn't the energy giant as gung ho about wind energy?
Of course, it could be argued that the company is delving into wind, just not here. According to the Wind-Watch.org (citing the Associated Press and The Washington Post) and Duke Energy's website, the company has recently tabled coastal wind energy plans in North Carolina because of cost considerations even though its plans for wind energy generation in states like Colorado and Wyoming are moving ahead.
Of course, to many, biomass is "greenwashing" code for burning trash. (Think of the incinerator in Matthews.)
In other communities around the world, citizens are rallying against biomass energy production. In our state, however, government officials hear words like "green" and "jobs" in the same sentence and can't wait to sign on the dotted line. Moreover, the subject is so complex that people either don't understand or don't try to understand what it really means for our area's air quality to burn wood and trash in incinerators in the name of electricity — even though a biomass plant at the proposed "eco-industrial" ReVenture Park — is currently in the works for Mecklenburg County. The plant at that site, by the way, if approved, will be right next door to a brand new CMS elementary school, downtown Mount Holly and the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
As the Sierra Club points out (PDF), some states — Delaware, Maryland and Massachusetts — are considering regulations that will prevent incinerators from operating within three miles of schools. The group also notes that there are 25 schools or daycare facilities within four miles of the proposed ReVenture site.
Here's a video from Gadsden County, Fla., where Dr. William Sammons, a pediatrician, discusses the potential impacts of burning biomass for fuel. He calls the external health care ramifications that will follow biomass "horrendous."
Rhiannon "Rhi" Bowman is an independent journalist who contributes snarky commentary on Creative Loafing's CLog blog four days a week in addition to writing for several other local media organizations. To learn more, click the links or follow Rhi on Twitter.