Making the Switch

Last year, a significant amount of coal-fired power plant proposals were shot down by regulators, and an increasing number of utilities are developing plans to convert to biomass. Is this a trend and, if so, will it continue?
By Anna Austin
The end of the coal era is perhaps not in the foreseeable future, but biomass power is becoming an increasingly popular option for power providers. Before biomass can overtake coal, however, a solid infrastructure to support the biomass power industry must be developed. This effort would benefit from not only government support and tax incentives, but also the completion and evaluation of projects which will serve as forerunners in the nation's energy transition.

Making the Switch
According to the U.S. DOE, coal power plants account for 50 percent of power generation in the U.S., and more than 60 percent in the Southeast, which leads the nation in carbon dioxide emissions.

In contrast, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says that wood and wood-derived fuels accounted for 39 million megawatt hours, or 0.9 percent of total net electricity generation for 2007 in the U.S. For the first time, these fuels were the largest sources of renewable electricity generation, accounting for 37.1 percent of total net renewable generation, excluding conventional hydroelectric generation.

Woody biomass power has caught the attention of Southern Co., one of the largest power companies in the U.S. The company is currently conducting technical and economic studies at multiple plants to evaluate the impact of converting to woody biomass power. These studies will provide a basic analysis to indicate whether these projects are economically feasible.

The Electric Power Research Institute is performing the studies and will compile data by investigating all relevant issues in full, including power conversion, unit operational changes, expected operation costs, new environmental controls, emissions, new fuel storage and handling equipment, required fuel supply, and local and regional fuel suppliers.

Southern Co.'s largest utilities provider Georgia Power has a massive project underway-one that may serve as a model for others-that will transform the 164 megawatt coal-fired Plant Mitchell, which is near Albany, Ga., to a 96 megawatt, 100 percent wood-fired plant. Pending approval from the Georgia Public Service Commission, the transformation will create the largest operating biomass power plant in the nation.

Meet Plant Mitchell
In recent years, Georgia Power has initiated a number of renewable action plans with Georgia Public Service Commission the state regulatory body. "In general, we want to pursue the benefits that renewable energy resources have to offer," says Kenny Smith, Georgia Power project manager.

An obvious benefit biomass has over coal, which is notorious for its negative environmental effects, is that it is clean burning. "This means significant reductions in certain emissions pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and mercury, as well as being carbon neutral," Smith says.

In addition, Smith points out the transition of Plant Mitchell will also allow the plant to embrace fuel diversity, and reap the cost benefits of using wood biomass as a fuel compared with coal. "The cost of coal fuel has risen dramatically in the past year or so," he says. "Not only that, but the projected cost for coal, natural gas and traditional fuels in 10, 20, 30 years has gone up substantially. That makes the idea of using wood chips as an alternative look more attractive than it did five or 10 years ago."

According to the U.S. DOE, the price of coal has gone up from about $30 per ton in 2000 to $150 per ton in September 2008. "In a nutshell, when we looked at renewable fuels, particularly wood biomass, there are a lot more incentives than there used to be-and as time goes on, renewable generation technologies continue to advance and become potentially more affordable," Smith says.

The incentives don't end there. A project like this is also expected to result in a cost savings for customers, Smith points out, rather than a cost increase which many have been experiencing. In Georgia, although there are no renewable production tax credits in place, the purchase of biomass fuel is exempt from sales tax, whereas natural gas and coal aren't.

"Over the life of this new biomass unit, fuel cost compared with coal cost would be roughly 30 percent less per year on a cost per kilowatt hour basis," Smith says. "Operating and maintenance costs would be about 13 percent less."

Cost, Sustainability and More
The costs of transitioning Plant Mitchell to biomass power have been carefully evaluated. Smith says capital costs will total $102.8 million, for 76 megawatts of net capacity. "Those numbers are not the full project, but the portion of the project that will be put into the retail, or customer base," he says. "A portion of the plant has been committed to wholesale and has different numbers, but those are the numbers that are in the public venue, although the total project is 96 megawatts."

Although in terms of Plant Mitchell's megawatt capacity, the number will drop significantly, Smith says in terms of energy-or kilowatt hours produced-it will produce more energy per year than the existing plant. "This is because we have it running a lot more, because wood fuel is expected to be much more cost-effective than coal," he says.

As far as feedstock sustainability is concerned, Smith says that shouldn't be an issue. "We've had two separate external studies done to find out how much wood and wood biomass material is available in the region around Plant Mitchell because we wanted to make sure there was enough for us, existing users of the wood and other proposed projects similar to ours."

According to the sustainability studies there is a large amount of material available, somewhere in the neighborhood off 11 to 12 times what we would need for this project, according to Smith. "Georgia is rich in forestry and timberland resources, so there is more than enough available for this project."

According to the Georgia Forestry Association, the state has 23.8 million acres of commercial forest land, more than any other state.

When the project is able to move forward, it is expected to create 50 to 75 new jobs related to waste wood recovery. A logging crew would collect tops, limbs and unmerchantable timber, transform it into woodchips and haul it back to the plant to be unloaded.

Georgia Power expects to hear from the Public Service Commission by March 12, if it can go ahead with the project. Smith says he expects it will be a go. "There has been a lot of strong support for the project from the PSC and other groups as well, he says. "The next big step is getting an air permit approved by the state Environmental Protection Division, which could take anywhere from 15 to 18 months."

If the plan continues as scheduled, Georgia Power will receive an air permit between the spring and summer of 2010, begin the transition in 2011, and come on line prior to the summer of 2012.

If the project succeeds, the company will look into converting more of its plants to biomass, Smith says. "It's unique," he says. "It's the first one of its kind for our company-so we want to get some experience under our belt and see how it goes before we initiate others like it."

Combating Coal
More states are becoming aggressive in regulating emissions and approving proposals for building new coal plants. Washington currently prohibits coal plants with emissions exceeding those of natural gas plants. Maine has enacted a law requiring the Board of Environmental Protection to develop greenhouse gas emissions standards for coal gasification facilities, which has led to a moratorium on constructing any new coal gasification facilities until the standards are developed. Texas and California have implemented similar legislation.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (see sidebar on page 33), which has been an advocate for the Plant Mitchell project, believes that a federal renewable energy standard will be passed within the next two to five years. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a renewable energy standard last year, but it failed to pass in the Senate. In a speech at Virginia's George Mason University in January, President Barack Obama said he supported a 25 percent by 2025 renewable energy standard.

The U.S. isn't the only country trying to wean itself off coal. The province of Ontario, Canada, passed coal phase-out legislation, which calls for the end of coal-based power production by 2014. In Australia, the Australian Greens party is proposing to phase out coal power stations.

Although slow, the dominance of clean, renewable energy seems to be coming. It will be a long road full of challenges, but as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."

Anna Austin is an Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 738-4968.