Railroad Ties: An Essential Biomass Power Fuel

Biomass power plants use approximately 815,000 tons of railroad ties per year, distributed among 13 facilities in seven states.
By Bob Cleaves | August 14, 2014

Every year, millions of railroad ties in the U.S. are replaced. The wood that keeps trains on track is subject to a significant amount of wear and tear from constant train traffic and weather exposure. To keep the train system safe and reliable, these ties must be replaced every so often with new ones.
So what happens to the used railroad ties? Sometimes they are sold for repurposing, providing a source of wood for furniture building, landscaping and other small craft industries. The volume of replaced railroad ties, however, requires a larger-scale solution. Many biomass power facilities have discovered an ideal fuel source in railroad ties, as their benefits are compelling. Railroad tie fuel (RTF) allows biomass boilers to operate more efficiently by complementing higher-moisture fuels like forestry residues. In turn, this enhances healthy forests, promotes recycling for urban wood, allows states to meet renewable energy goals, and reduces methane emissions that would otherwise occur if the ties were left to decompose or be landfilled.

As a result of a 2006 case, Natural Resources Defense Council vs. the U.S. EPA, EPA was forced to develop regulations to define what constitutes “fuel” and what is considered “waste.” Earlier this year, the agency issued a draft rule clearly designed to encourage the continued use of RTF. The agency noted the fuel value of railroad ties as a “nonhazardous biomass alternative to fossil fuel.”Nevertheless, the draft rule creates a convoluted test—called the “legitimacy criteria”—that has the net effect of disqualifying potentially 80 percent of all RTF used by the biomass industry.

EPA’s proposal limits the use of RTF to boilers, where so-called contaminant levels are similar to fuel oil. Only boilers that currently, or at one time, have installed a fuel oil delivery system can use railroad ties. This disregards the key facts that the emissions are the same whether a boiler uses natural gas or fuel oil, and the agency has, for years, encouraged the energy sector to replace fuel oil with cleaner-burning natural gas. The net effect of the rule is to restrict railroad ties to only boilers currently or formerly equipped with fuel oil guns.

For boilers that do not fit into this category—and there are many—the industry will be forced to spend millions of dollars to install oil systems that will never be used and has a sole purpose of meeting regulatory criteria. Regardless of whether the boiler uses natural gas or fuel oil, the environmental performance is identical. So for identical boilers using railroad ties, the one cofiring with natural gas will be considered using a “waste” while the other cofiring with fuel oil will be considered a “fuel.”

In fact, if EPA’s draft rule is adopted in its current form, the environment is ultimately the loser. If railroad ties cannot be used for energy, their fate is a landfill. According to industry estimates, railroad tie fuel would fill an entire football field, 70 stories high, every single year. That material would decompose, creating 1.65 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Biomass Power Association, along with several of our members who rely on railroad ties to keep their facilities running, submitted comments to the EPA on its proposed rule. Our members alone use approximately 815,000 tons of railroad ties per year, distributed among 13 facilities in seven states. In many cases, this material accounts for 25 percent or more of the facility’s fuel consumption. Under the current drafting of the EPA’s rule, the fuel relied on to generate a significant portion of their power would be disallowed.

We are confident that we can find a workable solution and are working with the EPA and our members to ensure the continued use of RTF by biomass facilities.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association