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Thursday, June 3, 2010

With biomass, green and not-so-green lines blur

From an article by Tom Content in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Wisconsin power projects spark questions about emissions from biomass vs. fossil fuels

How green can the energy produced by a biomass power plant be if it releases carbon dioxide into the air just like a coal or natural gas-fueled plant?

That's the question being raised about biomass projects, including one proposed by We Energies in Rothschild and another Xcel Energy Corp. is considering in Ashland.

"You can't assume that biomass is carbon-neutral. It depends on how many trees you plant and how fast they grow, and all sorts of variables," said Katie Nekola, energy program director at the conservation group Clean Wisconsin. "It's right to look at it case by case to see exactly what the carbon balance is going to be for any plant. . . ."

Milwaukee-based We Energies is proposing a $255 million, 50-megawatt power plant at the Domtar Corp. paper mill in Rothschild. Some residents in Rothschild, south of Wausau, have objected to the project because of concerns about air pollution that would be released by a new power plant located not far from a $770 million coal-fired power plant in Weston and south of Rothschild.

The utility said it proposed the biomass project as a way to help it comply with Wisconsin's renewable power mandate because it can generate electricity around the clock, unlike a wind farm. The project would supply steam to Domtar's paper mill and create up to 150 jobs, the utility said.

Critics call for a review


Critics of the project are asking the state Public Service Commission and Department of Natural Resources to do a full environmental review of the project.

A detailed review is not required and was not performed for the proposed Xcel Energy biomass plant in Ashland.

The agencies have not decided whether the review, known as an environmental impact statement, will be done for the We Energies project.

"Stop this biomass project now, please," Rebecca Simms of Rothschild said in a public comment filed with the state. "Biomass should no longer be considered an alternative to fossil fuels and should no longer be considered carbon-neutral, because it is not."

In a filing last week in response to an inquiry by state regulators, We Energies disclosed that carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions from the Rothschild plant would be about 590,000 tons a year.

The utility says that will be offset by the replanting of trees in the forest that will absorb carbon dioxide. . . .

In Madison, the state of Wisconsin has proposed a $250 million biomass and natural gas plant to replace a coal-fired plant that serves the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In Ashland, Xcel Energy would replace a coal-fired power plant with a biomass gasifier. The status of that project is uncertain, however, after the utility's cost estimate for the project ballooned by nearly 37% to $79.5 million.

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