Residents oppose proposed biomass power plant

By Anna Austin
Given the rough economic times, one would think that communities would welcome a company or business planning to bring new jobs to the area. Despite the potential for economic benefits, some residents are wary of new biomass projects.

Residents of Russell, Mass., a town of about 1,650, have recently reiterated their long-standing opposition to the construction of a 50-megawatt woody biomass power plant on the banks of the Westfield River. The project has generated concerns since Russell Biomass LLC unveiled its plans in 2005.

Although Russell Biomass has indicated the plant will have numerous benefits including lowering taxes and electricity bills, creating 50 direct full-time jobs and 200 additional indirect jobs, funding for an annual student scholarship and reducing fossil fuel consumption, some people have reservations, particularly about the amount of water it will draw from the Westfield River for cooling purposes.

On a Web site ( created for residents who oppose the plant, it says that "many believe that the river simply cannot remain as healthy and clean as it is if Russell Biomass withdraws 800,000-plus gallons of water daily, with about 100,000 gallons returned to the river warm and polluted." The Web site also says the river has been experiencing historically unprecedented drought conditions. Numerous other reasons are listed as to why the plant should not be built in its proposed locations.

Water use wasn't an issue with the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency, however, as it granted Russell Biomass a Water Management Act Permit early last year, which is valid until 2012. Prior to the issuance of the permit MEPA received more than 200 letters of concern regarding the plant.

The agency balances a variety of factors before they grant water permits, including reasonable protection of existing water uses, land values, investments and enterprises; reasonable conservation consistent with efficient water use; reasonable protection of public drinking water supplies, water quality, wastewater treatment capacity, waste assimilation capacity, groundwater recharge areas, navigation, hydropower resources, water-based recreation, wetland habitat, fish and wildlife, agriculture, and flood plains; and reasonable economic development and job creation.

So what role does water play in biomass power plants, does it differ with the type of plant, and does it have a profound effect on the environment?

Peter Flynn, a University of Alberta professor and biomass power plant expert, explained that different types of biomass power plants use different amounts of water, but the method used to cool the water is something to seriously consider.

The Russell Biomass power plant will be a single-cycle, stand-alone facility. The company said DEP regulations permit the withdrawing of 55 million gallons per day from the river, but the plant will withdraw less than half of that amount. One question that has risen among critics of the plant is that the company has chosen to use water when there is air cooling technology available.

"Why would someone choose water over air?" Flynn said. "It's cheaper, there's better heat transfer, and on a hot day your efficiency of power generation depends on how cool your cooling medium is. If it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit and you're trying to cool steam against air, you might only get the steam down to 120 degrees and that's a much higher pressure than there would be on a winter day, when it's minus 20 and you can cool to zero. Also, you need more surface area to transfer the heat down, so it's a bigger capital expense."

Flynn said when using water for cooling, the next thing a company must decide is whether the plant will be a once-through system, which is rare and tough to get permitted, or if a cooling pond will be built, where water is sent to release heat into the atmosphere before it is returned to the water source. "Most stand-alone power plants have cooling ponds-they're using only a tiny bit of make-up water."

Other devices for cooling may be used, as well. The Russell Biomass plant will have a mechanical draft evaporative cooling tower which will withdraw water from the Westfield River via an existing intake structure. "A cooling tower sucks air through warm water to cool it down," Flynn said. Russell Biomass said the company will increase the river temperature at the site by one-fourth of a degree on average and by no more than 1 degree on the coldest winter day. DEP regulations allow for a temperature increase of 5 degrees, at the proposed location.

Can warmer water affect fish and other water-dwellers? "It's really a site-by-site type of question," Flynn said. "Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water. If you had the Amazon River going by, and put a 5,000 megawatt power plant nearby, you'd never even know."

Despite the opposition, the plant will be built. A company spokesman told Biomass Magazine that the company expects to have all necessary permits in order by October, and begin construction in late summer 2010.