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Riding the Renewable Rollercoaster

As with any industry there are bound to be highs and lows. I was reminded of that the past couple of week as one biomass project was scrapped but another one is in the construction phase.
By Rona Johnson | November 19, 2010

As with any industry there are bound to be highs and lows. I was reminded of that the past couple of week as one biomass project was scrapped but another one is in the construction phase.

I was disappointed when I read the news that electric utility FirstEnergy Corp. had decided to abandon its plans to repower two of its units at its R.E. Burger Plant in Shadyside Ohio, with biomass. But I understand that it was due to a significant decrease in the cost of electricity.

Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy’s biomass plans were prompted by a 2005 Consent Decree settlement with the U.S. EPA, whereas the utility was obligated to repower, scrub or shut down units 4 and 5 as part of an overall plan to reduce sulfur-dioxide emissions.

The utility had planned to use wood and agricultural waste, including manure, and landfill and food waste instead of coal to fire the plant, but in the end electricity prices weren’t high enough to cover the cost of installing smokestack scrubbers, modifying the boilers to burn wood and maintaining the boilers.

Instead the company will have to shut down units 4 and 5 at its Shadyside plant by the end of the year, and says the 79 employees with either continue at the Burger Plant to help with the shut down process or be temporarily reassigned to other First Energy facilities. Eventually, the company says it will offer these workers other jobs within the company. Let’s hope they don’t become part of the growing mass of unemployed in the U.S.

It’s a shame the plant couldn’t move forward with its plan because it would have created more economic development in the region for potential suppliers of waste wood, crop residue, animal manure and landfill waste. If successful, it also would have been a great model for other projects in Ohio and the surrounding states.

But as the saying goes, as one door closes, another opens. That door is in Oregon where Iberdrola Renewables Inc. has started construction of its 26.8-megawatt biomass cogeneration plant. The plant will be located in Lakeview, Ore., and will produce enough power for 18,000 homes. The plant will use about 160,000 bone-dry tons of logging and mill residue from a nearby sawmill will provide steam for that operation.

We wish Iberdrola all the best during the construction process and hope to see the finished plant which is expected to be operational by 2012.

1 Responses

  1. Chris

    2010-11-19

    1

    Construction of the Iberdrola’s biomass plant in Lakeview has begun. The media is full of proud pronouncements, of jobs and saving the Collin’s Mill. These are great things – were it not for the location adjacent to a former reclamated uranium mill site and in a town with some of the worst particulate air quality in Oregon. Although you did not hear about it in the media, recently Iberdrola gave back $1.7 million dollars of American Reinvestment Act (Stimulus) monies allocated to the Lakeview project. Why? To avoid undergoing additional, more rigorous, environmental analysis and public review for the project. Why do this? One reason is tax credits. The BETC (energy) tax credits are driving Iberdrola’s businesses decisions and construction of the biomass plant needed to begin prior to January 2011 in order to receive these monies. Another reason are new, more stringent, air pollution requirements that will apply to biomass plants like that being constructed in Lakeview and that go into effect Janurary 2011. Commencing now, they are grand fathered into the old rules. All the hurrying for corporate profits is covering up a dirty little secret: The groundwater/shallow water aquifer under Iberdrola’s site is contaminated with the byproducts of the old uranium mill. Under direction from the EPA, town planning maps identify a groundwater overlay of suspected contaminated groundwater and codes prohibit the development of potable wells within that area. There are no town codes or prohibitions to excavate. Since ingestion of contaminated water is already a concern, is exposure? As foundation excavation for their 200 foot smoke stack, 85 foot cooling towers, and numerous 55 foot plus structures is undertaken, it is quite possible that workers will be exposed to radioactive groundwater. Tracking down a regulatory agency, the Oregon Department of Public Health is responsible for not only public health and safety, but is contracted out by OSHA to be responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers when radiological agents are involved. While expressing concern, they have shown reluctance in exercising authority to enter the site for testing – even with the existence of groundwater monitoring wells in the area put in place for the purpose of monitoring the radioactive plume of groundwater. They are making a decision on how to proceed shortly. I would hope that politicians and regulatory agencies are not being co-opted as the project moves forward. Iberdrola is the largest renewable energy company in the world and brings with it all the political clout national, state and local politicians can trickle down. Business tax credits and avoidance of more stringent clean air act / environmental rules should not trump the health and safety of workers and the public alike. While the biomass project is a good one – its location may not. Jobs are very important in Lakeview; however, as Lakeview already knows jobs (like those associated with the uranium mill in the past) can come with a high cost. One can say that the biomass plant project exists only because of past forest mismanagement that were the jobs of the past. The trick now is to not repeat history.

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