FirstEnergy encounters opposition to biomass plans

By Lisa Gibson
Posted May 24, 2010, at 3:49 p.m. CST

Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy has plans to convert its 312-megawatt coal-fired R.E. Burger power plant along the Ohio River to biomass, but two state organizations have concerns with sustainability and the source of that biomass.

The Ohio Environmental Council and Consumers' Counsel have asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to reject FirstEnergy's request for classification of its project as a renewable energy facility on the grounds that it has not provided enough information to warrant the qualification. That would mean First Energy could not count the energy generated from biomass there toward its state mandate of 12.5 percent renewable electricity from utilities by 2025, according to Will Reisinger, staff attorney with the Ohio Environmental Council.

"We think that FirstEnergy has not explained enough about their project to identify why it qualifies as a renewable energy project," Reisinger said. The PUCO has agreed with the agencies' argument twice, indefinitely suspending the company's application, he added. The two agencies are now requesting dismissal of the application altogether. "We want some basic information about the source of the biomass material," Reisinger said. "The whole state could be deforested to produce energy for this one project."

The biomass plant would be one of the largest in the country, requiring about 1 million tons of biomass each year, according to Mark Durbin, FirstEnergy spokesman. FirstEnergy has yet to determine the type and source of feedstock that would be used at the $200 million retrofitted facility, but it could consist of woody biomass or agricultural biomass. "We're actually in the process of looking through the requests for proposals for fuel," Durbin said. "We would work with fuel suppliers." He added that the company does not agree with the arguments against it and has provided all the information required for the application. "We have done everything we need to do," he said, adding that he would not speculate as to the impact on the company or project if the PUCO rejects its application.

FirstEnergy is required by the U.S. EPA to convert the facility to biomass feedstock if it wants to continue generating electricity there, Reisinger said, adding that the concerns lie in the application and renewable energy qualification, not in the retrofit itself. The sole project would meet the state mandate for the company, while providing extra renewable energy credits to sell to other utilities, Reisinger said, adding that biomass is only one of a few options for renewable energy. "If this generates as much as they think it will, FirstEnergy can use that to comply with the renewable energy standard." No deadline exists for the PUCO to reach a decision on the application.

"Ultimately, the PUCO will decide," Durbin said.