American Recycler Newspaper

New momentum for turning wood-waste into energy
Wood Fuel Plant

By Brian R. Hook E-mail the author

Developing new facilities to turn wood-waste into energy is not cheap. But at a cost of nearly $90 million dollars each, GenPower LLC is developing three plants in New England.

Tom Emero, general counsel and director of renewable energy projects at the Needham, Massachusetts developer of electrical generation facilities, said that now is a good time to build the wood-waste-to-energy plants thanks to a combination of market and government forces.

“You’ve seen Europe do it and now you’re seeing the United States do it,” Emero said, referring to banning or restricting the disposal of wood products that are recyclable. “It is just a bulky material and takes up a lot of space. There are other uses for it, so why put in landfills?”

Other incentives to turn wood-waste into energy include energy credits in some states and a small amount of federal production tax credits, Emero said. Plus, he said the rising cost of fossil fuels also plays a role. Wood-waste can be used to generate electricity or processed heat. The wood for use as fuel comes from a variety of sources, including land clearing and tree trimming residue as well as from wood processing waste and construction and demolition debris.

The plants under development by GenPower are going to be in Athens, Maine, Hinsdale, New Hampshire and near Fitchburg, Massachusetts. All three are going to be 42-megawatt plants designed to burn 100 percent construction and demolition debris. But Emero said the plants would likely burn a mixture of construction and demolition debris along with forest residue. Once completed, GenPower plans to operate the three wood-waste-to-energy plants. GenPower — which has developed facilities, including hydro, gas and coal plants, representing 1,740 megawatts of electrical power from Maine to Arkansas — usually is involved only in the development stage. But many of its previous projects were in the $300 million range, Emero said. He said the new wood-waste facilities would fit nicely into GenPower’s portfolio.

The new facility in Athens, Maine is the furthest along in development, Emero said. It is going to be located at the site of a former wood-waste-to-energy facility. Montreal-based Boralex Inc. sold that plant to Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific Corp. The giant paper and paper products producer then moved the facility lock-stock-and-barrel to one of its nearby paper mills.

There are currently nine stand-alone wood-waste facilities in Maine that generate electricity for the power-grid, according to the Independent Energy Producers of Maine.

David Wilby, executive director of the non-profit association in Augusta, said there are also wood-waste facilities at paper mills throughout the state that generate power for internal use.

Wilby said that wood-waste generation in Maine has struggled in the past. At one point there was over 20 independent plants in Maine. “They couldn’t sell electricity to make a profit,” Wilby said, citing a combination of long-term contracts at high prices and the low costs of other fuels. “But today, they are all either running or in one case they are going to very soon,” he said.

State policies across New England have had a bigger impact on the stability of the market than the current high prices of other forms of fuels, Wilby said. He said that in particular, the renewable portfolio standards in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have played a big part. An RPS is a mandate that any seller of electricity operating in that state must derive a certain port of that electricity from renewable sources. Each state defines what qualifies.

“States are saying to the supplier that they’ve got to go out and get this particular type of electricity as part of their portfolio,” Wilby said. Maine has a RPS, but Wilby said the eligibility is so broad it does not provide much incentive for generators. Producers based in Maine, however, can sell renewable energy certificates to customers in other New England states.

A majority of the wood-waste in Maine comes from sawmills, Wilby said. The second most prevalent form comes from forestry operations in the form of wood chips or tree limbs that are of not much value in the pulp-making process. The third form of wood-waste, and by far the smallest amount across Maine, comes from construction and demolition debris, he said.

Despite the recent resurgence in the interest of the wood-waste-to-energy industry in Maine, the state still faces some obstacles, according to a report prepared by Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC for the Maine Department of Conservation. The consultant reports that the industry faces “significant challenges, but strong opportunities are present, both for existing facilities and for new, cutting-edge technologies that use wood to produce electricity.”

Some of the challenges include retooling plants across the state to qualify for RPS. Plus, prices in the electricity market in Maine are set largely by the cost of generation by natural gas facilities, according to Portland-based consultant. “This will likely result in an unstable wood market, with large swings in wood demand as wood-fired power plants start and stop electricity production based upon wholesale prices,” Innovative Natural Resource Solutions concludes.

Nationally, the amount of wood and wood-waste turned into energy has remained essentially flat, according to the Energy Information Administration, a statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington D.C. The EIA reports that the nation consumed 2.8 quadrillion British thermal units in 1994 compared to 2.5 quadrillion BTU’s in 2004.

Fred Mayes, chief of the renewable information team at the EIA, said the numbers have basically risen then fallen, then risen again, but only by a little. “The fact of the matter is that over time there has really been almost no movement in the long-term basis,” he said. This largely reflects the use of energy in the forest products industry, particularly in the pulp and paper sub industry, Mayes said. “The pulp and paper industry is highly tied to the general economy.”

The outlook is not expected to change much. The EIA expects the nation to consume 2.4 quadrillion BTU’s in 2025. “The consumption of wood waste is going to grow basically in relation to how much wood-waste is produced from the paper and pulp industry,” Mayes said.

Wood-waste from landfills is not counted as a wood source by the EIA. Most of the wood-waste recorded by the EIA is used to produce processed heat rather than electricity, Mayes said. “It largely has to do with the forest products industry. They have a need for lots and lots of heat.” One of the major wood-waste products is a substance called black liquor, which comes off during the pulping process. “It overwhelms every other use of biomass that there is,” he said.

There are things that can be done to promote turning more wood-waste into energy, like diverting under-growth and debris from tree trimming away from landfills, Mayes said. But he said that legislation to promote wood-waste might be counterproductive. “When you are talking about the paper and pulp industry, you would basically be saying that we need for you to create more waste,” he said. “Once people see that, it is pretty easy to understand why it really hasn’t grown,” referring to the amount of wood-waste that has been turned into energy over the years.

Emero, of GenPower, said that legislation however, when properly implemented, is often the best way to create new energy markets. When the government limits what can be done with the waste, Emero said it stimulates other markets to form. “There are a lot of people who begin to do other things with it,” he said. “We are able to do something with that wood. We create a lot of jobs and we create energy out of material that would just rot away in the earth.”

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