Powerful Panel

Biomass conference panel features experienced biomass power developers.
By Lisa Gibson | November 22, 2011

Just weeks before the Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show, American Renewables held a groundbreaking ceremony for its 100-megawatt (MW) biomass power plant in Gainesville, Fla. Josh Levine, vice president of project development for American Renewables, spoke about developing the plant during the conference panel “Southeastern Biomass Power Producers’ Roundtable.”

Attendees were anxious to hear what Levine and his fellow speakers, Marvin Burchfield, vice president of Decker Energy, and Raine Cotton, CEO of Southeast Renewable Energy, had to say about the successful development of their biomass power projects.

The Gainesville Renewable Energy Center will power about 70,000 homes through a 30-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Gainesville Regional Utilities. Sitting on a 131-acre site leased from Gainesville, the GREC will run on forestry residue, urban wood waste, and mill residue.

Addressing the well-known concern of over-development of biomass facilities that local resources can’t sustain, Levine said, “If you are waiting for a flood of biomass energy in the Southeast, you can put the waders back in the closet.” Even if that flood came, however, Levine said the region has more than enough fuel to support it. The GREC will operate under strict forest stewardship standards.
Having begun construction in March, the GREC should be operating in 2013.

“I see three main issues [for developing biomass power in the Southeast], and the first is policy,” Levine said. “It is very difficult being in this business and not knowing what’s coming down the pike.” The second major development issue he named was natural gas prices, and the third was regulatory uncertainty. He referred to the boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology rules and the EPA Tailoring Rule as examples.

One challenge Levine focused on that was also a major topic in Cotton’s presentation was biomass opposition. Opponents can file baseless appeals, and that process needs to be more realistic, Levine said.

One of Cotton’s presentation slides read, “If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.” The fierce biomass opposition is based on incomplete or entirely incorrect information, Cotton said, displaying a photo of what current and determined opponents are certain is a smoke stack spewing white smoke. But it’s steam, he explained. The industry needs to do better public outreach. “We do, as an industry, need to step up,” he said.

Ill-informed opponents can file an appeal and not even show up at the hearing, he explained. They know the time required for an appeals process can be devastating for a project.

Southeast Renewable Energy is developing three 15.2 MW biomass plants in South Carolina, spread across the wood basket. The plants have 30-year PPAs with Santee Cooper, an electric utility that was happy with the fact that the facilities were spread out, Cotton said.

Rounding out the panel was Burchfield, who talked about Decker Energy’s already-operating biomass plants, expanding on Cotton’s statement that the wood-to-energy industry is not a new one. “I believe we are in a mature industry,” Burchfield said. “Not only do I believe that, I can prove it.”

He showed photos of cabins using wood for energy in the 1800s, as well as boats. Specifically, he referred to Grayling Generating Station, Decker’s 37-MW biomass power plant in Grayling, Mich., operating since 1992. The U.S. has more than 7,000 MW of biomass power, 2,180 of which is stand-alone, he cited.

With three experienced biomass developers, the much-anticipated panel didn’t disappoint.

—Lisa Gibson