SE conference panel features experienced biomass power developers

By Lisa Gibson | November 04, 2011

Just weeks before the Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show in Atlanta on Nov. 1-3, American Renewables held the groundbreaking ceremony for its 100-megawatt (MW) biomass power plant in Gainesville, Fla. Josh Levine, vice president of project development for American Renewables, spoke about developing the plant on the conference’s final panel titled, “Southeastern Biomass Power Producers’ Roundtable.”

Throughout the conference, attendees were anxious to hear what Levine and his fellow speakers, Marvin Burchfield, vice president of Decker Energy, and Raine Cotton, CEO of Southeast Renewable Energy, had to say about the successful development of their biomass power projects.

The Gainesville Renewable Energy Center will power about 70,000 homes through a 30-year power purchase agreement with Gainesville Regional Utilities. Sitting on a 131-acre site leased from the city of Gainesville, the GREC will run on forestry residue, urban wood waste, and mill residue.

Addressing the well-known concern of over-development of biomass facilities that local resources can’t sustain, Levine told attendees, “If you are waiting for a flood of biomass energy in the Southeast, you can put the waders back in the closet.” Even if that flood came, however, Levine said the region has more than enough fuel to support it. American Renewables will operate the GREC under strict forest stewardship standards, such as using no stumps, unless they come from urban land clearing.

Having begun construction in March, American Renewables hopes to have the GREC operating in 2013.

“I see three main issues [for developing biomass power in the Southeast], and the first is policy,” Levine told the crowd. “It is very difficult being in this business and not knowing what’s coming down the pike.” The second major development issue he named was natural gas prices, and the third was regulatory uncertainty. He named the boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology rules and the EPA Tailoring Rule as examples. “I think it’s very difficult to construct these facilities,” he said.

One challenge Levine focused on that was also a major topic in Raine Cotton’s presentation was biomass opposition. Opponents can file baseless appeals, and that process needs to be more realistic, Levine said.

One of Cotton’s presentation slides read, “If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.” The fierce biomass opposition is based on incomplete or entirely incorrect information, Cotton said, displaying a photo of what current and determined opponents are certain is a smoke stack spewing white smoke. But it’s steam, he explained. The industry needs to do better public outreach. “We do, as an industry, need to step up,” he said.

Ill-informed opponents can file an appeal and not even show up at the hearing, he explained. They know the time required for an appeals process can be devastating for a project and that’s all they want. 

Southeast Renewable Energy is developing three 15.2 MW biomass plants in South Carolina, spread across the wood basket. The plants have 30-year PPAs with Santee Cooper, an electric utility that liked the fact that the facilities were spread out, Cotton said.

Last, Marvin Burchfield spoke of Decker Energy’s already-operating biomass plants, expanding on Cotton’s statement that the wood-to-energy industry is not a new one. “I believe we are in a mature industry,” Burchfield said. “Not only do I believe that, I can prove it.”

He showed the audience photos of cabins using wood for energy in the 1800s, as well as boats. Specifically, he named Grayling Generating Station, Decker’s 37 MW biomass power plant in Grayling, Mich., operating since 1992. The U.S. has more than 7,000 MW of biomass power, 2,180 of which is stand-alone, he cited.

With three experienced biomass developers, the much-anticipated panel didn’t disappoint, evidenced by the many attendees who made their way to the stage with more questions at the close of the discussion.