Community CHP project focus of biomass conference discussion

By Lisa Gibson | October 12, 2011

What started as a trip to Gussing, Austria, to see a combined-heat-and-power plant in action has turned into developing plans for a similar facility in northern Pennsylvania’s borough of Smethport.

Timothy Pierson, extension forester and educator with Penn State University, was one of the delegates on the Austria trip and presented Smethport’s plans during the biomass thermal panel “Diligence in District Heating: An Exploration of Existing District Heat Facilities and Growth Potential in the Northeast” at the Northeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show held in Pittsburgh Oct. 11-13.

Smethport’s CHP plant will provide heat for a number of buildings, and the necessary replacement of the borough’s antiquated public water system provides an opportunity to install the plant and its distribution network, Pierson said. “We’re in the process now of trying to come up with a final report to present to Smethport council and McKean County.”

Critical factors to the success of biomass CHP in Europe include infrastructure correlation, public funding, carbon neutrality, resource availability, strong community consensus and wise use of the biomass, Pierson cited.

The success of Gussing’s CHP plant can be transferred to Smethport, he emphasized, singling out local biomass resource availability as a crucial tipping factor. Displaying a photo of a forest he said is located in Austria, Pierson said, “Couldn’t tell if that was Pennsylvania or Austria.”

The state, and Smethport specifically, does have ample local biomass resources. Wood is the life blood of northern Pennsylvania, Pierson said, and Smethport represents a prime location for a demonstration facility. The borough is small and has a long history of wood use, as well as devastation from wildfires. “They also are really into recycling their energy money locally instead of just sending it out,” Pierson said.

The town can hopefully capitalize on the ecoenergy tourism Gussing has benefited from, Pierson said, to the agreement of fellow panelists Kamalesh Doshi, senior program director for the Biomass Energy Resource Center, and Edward Johnstonbaugh, educator of energy savings and renewables for Penn State Extension. Doshi said he has also been to Gussing’s CHP plant, which sees between 600 and 1,000 visitors per week, each paying about $300 to see the plant’s accompanying research facility.

A ways off and with a few factors standing in the way of construction, the Smethport CHP plant is nonetheless shaping up to be a model for others to follow, much like Gussing. “Smethport seeks to be a leader in sustainability and renewable energy independence in utilizing woody biomass,” Pierson said.