Seneca Sustainable Energy receives final operating permit

By Seneca Sustainable Energy | February 18, 2015

Bringing a rather unnecessarily long chapter to a close, the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency recently issued its final Title V permit to the Seneca Sustainable Energy biomass plant. The granting of this permit confirms that the Seneca biomass plant has been actually operating within its stated pollution limits all along. While unfortunate that it took so long, and gave certain activists the opportunity to agitate a situation to further their own agenda, Seneca is proud to receive confirmation that its biomass plant is the cleanest and lowest emission renewable power plant currently running in the western United States.

Since the plant went into operation in 2011, noise from environmental activists in the media has caused a lot of confusion about the permitting, operations and compliance of this plant. But true to its values, Seneca reached well beyond its regulatory obligations during the break-in period of the plant’s operations and took proactive steps to ensure that the plant operates at maximum efficiency for clean air results. In fact, Seneca dedicated approximately 25 percent of the plant’s total capital cost solely to emission control equipment and technology.

“Caring for our environment and our surroundings is a priority for Seneca, as evidenced by our desire to generate clean energy,” said Todd Payne, vice president and general manager of Seneca. “Lane County sets very high standards for air quality, but anything short of exceeding those standards would have been unacceptable to us. We live and work here, after all. So we set very high standards for this plant.”

Payne noted that by electing to pursue exceedingly stringent pollution targets when it was bringing this plant on-line, Seneca encountered a few unforeseen hurdles, “It took some fine-tuning and much clarifying communication with regulators to make sure we were all in alignment about Seneca’s high expectations and their rules and timelines. But in working through this with LRAPA and the U.S. EPA, we kind of came full-circle and it was finally shown that the plant had indeed been in compliance all along. So it’s very rewarding to get this permit.”

During LRAPA’s permitting review process, the EPA also rigorously examined the biomass plant, most notably at an unannounced inspection of the facility back in June 2014. In its report, the EPA noted many of the plant’s unique features that make it the cleanest of its kind. One of these practices is Seneca’s unique ability to identify, segregate and mix wood biomass fuel based on its moisture content in order to deliver optimal fuel for burning. This process all happens in a tightly controlled environment and the EPA cited how this practice allows this facility to operate in a much more stable manner than other comparable facilities.

The EPA inspection tour also confirmed that the plant was entirely within compliance guidelines and that Seneca had provided all requested records and documentation in a timely manner.

While the extended permitting period was a long one, and it was unfortunate that a small band of activists exploited the process to their own alarmist ends, Seneca maintains that the rigorous nature of it has had positive outcomes, “The reality is that this was uncharted territory for both Seneca and Lane County regulators. This was state-of-the-art equipment. We were pursuing high goals – well above what they were accustomed to. I think we helped regulators appreciate this new technology and practices and how to measure them. They, in turn, helped us refine best practices for this very big investment in renewable energy,” Payne said.

The emission control technology at this plant includes a multiclone cyclonic separator, a 4-field electrostatic precipitator and a continuous emission monitoring system, all of which allows the plant to far exceed minimum air quality standards. All biomass material fed to the facility utilize a fully enclosed system including truck dump, conveyors and fuel storage building. All fuel handling ducts to one of two baghouses to remove particulate emissions with 99.9 percent efficiency.

With the permit secured and Seneca looking to the future, the company intends to feature this biomass energy plant and its other sustainable forestry practices as a blueprint for smart business and wise environmental stewardship. “There are always going to be minor hiccups along the way when a company such as ours takes a leadership role in bold new endeavors,” Payne said. “But I think it’s important for everyone to keep an eye on the larger picture: the fuel for this plant comes from our sustainably managed tree farms. It would otherwise go to waste. That, coupled with our sawmill byproducts (bark, sawdust, shavings), allows us to provide annual energy needs for more than 13,000 families. And we’re employing people. There are a lot of good deeds here.”

In addition to producing electricity, Seneca uses steam heat from this cogeneration facility for drying its finished lumber. Seneca also strategically located the plant so it has an ideal connection to the local power grid. All of the plant’s renewable electricity is sold locally to the Eugene Water and Electric Board. As an added bonus, the facility assists EWEB and the State of Oregon in meeting the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 25 percent renewable energy by the year 2025.

“This biomass plant is beyond a ‘win-win,’” Payne said. “Quite frankly, I’ve lost track of how many ‘wins’ are in this. Not only for us at Seneca, but for our neighbors, employees, community and the environment. We’re just very, very proud.”