Another Question For Eastern Kentucky Biomass Plant: Is There Enough Water?

This story is part of a series from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WFPL.  Read the other stories here.  

A new report from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has found that a biomass plant that’s planned for Eastern Kentucky may not bring the clean energy and economic rewards its developers have promised. And there’s another potential roadblock for the plant: it needs a lot of water, and the city says it won’t be able to supply the facility.

It’s a cold winter day, and my colleague Ralph Dunlop and I are driving around aimlessly on top of a former strip mine in Perry County. The site hasn’t been used for mining in awhile; now, it’s the site of an industrial park. But what Ralph and I are looking for is slightly off the beaten path.

We’re several minutes down a rutted dirt road with thick brush on either side. I point to a clearing.

“That’s got to be it, maybe. I think there’s concrete on top of that.”

“Should we hang a right?” Ralph asks.

“Hang a right. This is it.”

“It” is fairly anticlimactic: a 30 foot by 30 foot concrete slab. This is where a company called ecoPower plans to build a biomass plant, and so far, this is the only sign of construction.

Standing on the slab, there are panoramic views of surface mining in several directions—signs of the coal mining that’s fueled this region for generations. If it’s built, this biomass plant will be a first, both for Perry County and for the commonwealth.

Technically, biomass is a form of renewable energy. These power plants burn living materials that aren’t living anymore—things like trees and wood pellets and even specially grown crops. The heat from the burning is turned into electricity. But contrary to ecoPower officials’ argument that the project will be beneficial for the region’s economy, documents suggest the promised jobs may be inflated and electricity rates will rise.

There are also questions about the plant’s effect on the local environment. Even though it’s renewable, biomass technology still relies on natural resources—namely, trees. And Hazard city officials tell us they have another concern: water.

Related: Would the Eastern Kentucky Biomass Plant be Good for the Environment?

Biomass plants need a lot of water—as much as a coal-fired power plant. EcoPower officials estimate they need anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of water a day. And Hazard officials say there’s no way the city can provide the power plant with all the water it needs.

“It’s impossible, I think,” says Hazard Mayor Nan Gorman. She says the city’s water supply has already run short once this winter, and if she has to prioritize, getting water to the new biomass plant wouldn’t be a main concern.

But she adds that the general sentiment in the county towards the plant is favorable, because of the jobs ecoPower says will come with the project.

“Most people are for it because of the employment,” she says. “Anything, they think anything we get in our industrial park would be good. And I’m all in favor of that, but I question the water.”

That water runs right outside Gorman’s office: the North Fork of the Kentucky River. It supplies water to the entire county. 

The county can only legally draw 5 million gallons of water from the river every day. And as it is, the city’s water treatment plant is having trouble keeping up with current demand.

The treatment plant was built more than a half century ago and sits just outside downtown. We walk in. The roar is deafening, and there’s no one around.

Finally we find Kenneth Couch, the city’s plant manager. We go into his small office, where there’s a TV blaring. There, Couch smokes Winstons and explains the inner workings of the city’s water system.

He’s been at the plant for 35 years, and has been in charge for the last 15 years or so. He says this is the first he’s heard of the ecoPower plant. And he doesn’t think the city can come anywhere close to providing 100,000 gallons of water a day to the plant, either.

Documents show the company has a plan B. In two siting documents, ecoPower officials said they would also consider getting water from the Hollybush impoundment, a water source located nearby on a former mine site.

But that’s problematic, too. Records show Hollybush can hold 20.5 million gallons of water. That’s a lot, and could potentially supply the ecoPower plant—at least sometimes. But it’s also likely that during dry seasons, the ecoPower plant could find itself without a reliable supply of water and thus, no electricity.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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