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Burning biomass

I can’t say I knew much about this before I read the story, but now that I have my initial reaction is to be skeptical.

Interest in building power plants fueled by wood waste has recently surged in East Texas, which has none of the wind-power potential of West Texas but does have plenty of pine trees. Forty-five miles away from Lufkin, in northwestern Nacogdoches County, a larger plant with the capacity to power about 75,000 homes is being built by Southern Company, an Atlanta-based utility holding company. That plant, which will sell its power to Austin Energy, broke ground a year ago and should be operational by mid-2012.

Two other plants, near Woodville and Lindale, received crucial permits from Texas air-pollution regulators this year, though construction has not yet started. A fifth plant, near Greenville, has an application pending.

The case for biomass power is that it derives from a renewable resource: trees. The power plants can produce electricity around the clock, unlike wind turbines and solar panels, which work only when the weather is right. They also create jobs.

I certainly get why East Texas might be interested in tree waste as a source of power, but I have two concerns. One is that any time you talk about burning something, you have to wonder about the carbon effect, among other things.

Neil Carman, the clean air director of the Sierra Club in Texas, says he is skeptical of the claims by biomass plants that they are “carbon-neutral” because the calculations would depend on how long it takes for the trees — the original source of the fuel — to grow back.

However, other types of pollution are more immediately worrisome, according to Carman. “They can have a lot of dirty particulate matter from what they’re burning,” he says. “I would be very concerned about the potential for local air pollution problems.”

Indeed, a few years ago locals raised concerns about pollution from the Lufkin plant, which is co-owned by Vines. That led to a protracted and rancorous permitting battle in which the Environmental Protection Agency got involved. Eventually, improvements in pollution controls were required, says Aaron Hartsfield, a postal worker who lives about a half-mile from the plant.

The other question is, what exactly is “wood waste”, and isn’t there something else you could be doing with it?

The pulp and paper industry also has reservations about potential competition for woody debris. Biomass plant operators insist they will use leftover materials — the Lufkin plant, for example, plans to use logging debris and limbs remaining in the forests that would otherwise rot or get burned, as well as trees and shrubs cut down by homeowners, and available wood waste from mills.

But sometimes, wood waste gets used for other purposes. Pulp mills, for example, use their debris to generate energy within their plants (as opposed to feeding it into the electric grid). There are 50 to 100 such plants across the Southeast, including in Texas, Whiting says.

“Potentially, you’re driving up the cost of their feedstock,” says Luke Bellsnyder, executive director of the Texas Association of Manufacturers, whose members include pulp and paper mills.

Landowners, however, will welcome a new market for their product, says Ron Hufford, executive vice president of the Texas Forestry Association, whose members span a range of forest-industry players, including some of the biomass plants.

Rotting in the forest is how nature has taken care of this stuff forever, so it’s not clear to me why we shouldn’t just keep letting that happen. Beyond that, I remain skeptical but would like to learn more. What do you think about this?

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