For decades, Eastern Kentucky has been coal country. Coal provided work for thousands, while severance taxes contributed to county budgets. And while the industry has been in a steep decline over the past few years, coal still powers almost all of the electricity for the region and the state.
Coal is such the norm in Perry County, it’s unusual to hear about a new power plant in the area that doesn’t use coal. And it’s even more unusual to hear about a renewable energy plant. But that’s the proposal: a company called ecoPower wants to build a 58.5 megawatt biomass plant on a former mine site near Hazard.
Biomass is usually grouped with energy sources like wind, solar or hydropower as a form of renewable energy. Biomass facilities usually burn plant-based materials—everything from trees to wood pellets to specially grown crops—and convert that heat into electricity. Trees and plants can be re-planted and harvested again and again. But unlike other forms of renewable energy, biomass materials—if they aren’t sustainably sourced—can run out.
Because of this dichotomy, biomass projects have often been controversial.
“If done well, [biomass] can really, really benefit ecosystems, the climate, the environment, the economy,” said John Bonitz of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
But the days of assuming that biomass energy is automatically clean and carbon-neutral are over. In 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources commissioned a landmark study from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. It found that in some cases, burning biomass releases as much, or more, carbon dioxide as burning fossil fuels. And it can take decades for the facilities to overcome that carbon “debt.”
Several factors determine whether a biomass power plant is a boon or a curse for the local environment and the planet.
- Fuel source: Some biomass facilities use scraps from lumber yards, while others burn wood pellets or whole trees. Experts agree that using “residues,” or waste products that would otherwise decompose, has a smaller environmental footprint than removing whole trees from forests. “If we’re cutting large diameter trees to be ground up for boiler fuel to be used in an inefficient boiler, than the literature suggests that that may not be beneficial to climate change mitigation,” Bonitz said.
- Efficiency: Like any power plant, if a biomass facility isn’t efficient it will produce more pollution relative to energy.
- Carbon dioxide emissions: One of the big takeaways from the Manomet study: in some cases, burning wood isn’t any better for climate change mitigation than burning fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas. Massachusetts took this into account when crafting biomass standards for companies seeking incentives under the state’s renewable energy portfolio.
“Biomass done right does very much have a role to play in our energy mix,” said Massachusetts Director of the Renewable Energy Division Dwayne Breger.
Many biomass plant operators—including ecoPower, the company behind the proposed biomass plant in Hazard—have argued that biomass burning is carbon neutral. They point out that burning wood releases carbon dioxide, but that carbon dioxide would have eventually been released anyway when the wood decomposed. Contrast this with coal, which doesn’t emit any carbon dioxide if it’s left deep in the earth.
But a biomass plant’s actual carbon footprint depends on what fuel it’s using. When you harvest a whole tree—called “thinnings”—you lose the potential of that tree sequestering carbon for years into the future. Massachusetts’ regulations require a biomass plant provide at least a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas over 20 years, and Breger said a plant wouldn’t be able to comply with that using solely thinnings.
So, how will the proposed ecoPower plant in Hazard affect the environment? The Kentucky Division of Forestry has recommendations for sustainable biomass harvest, like harvesting for biomass in conjunction with other harvest to minimize soil and water disruption. But there’s currently no enforceable law in Kentucky to ensure companies comply with those recommendations.
There are, however, other state and federal regulations that protect water and endangered species during timber harvesting, and Kentucky Director of Biofuels Tim Hughes said he believes those are adequate. “I believe we currently have enough regulations in place to protect our natural resources as we also grow bioenergy opportunities for the state,” he said.
EcoPower’s website includes a wood procurement policy, which notes it will only use wood sourced through sustainable means and encourage best management practices. Officials have said they plan to primarily use sawmill waste, but two biomass experts question if that would work.
EcoPower officials estimate the plant will need 500,000 tons of wood a year, and 400,000 tons of that will come from lumber yard and sawmill residues. But Mary Booth of the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity said it’s more likely they’ll need 600,000 tons, and she’s skeptical ecoPower could get most of that from sawmill waste.
“A lumber yard doesn’t produce anywhere near that amount of wood,” she said. “You would need 100 lumber yards. They’re going to be cutting trees to feed this plant.”
Jim Scheff of Kentucky Heartwood estimated that at least half of ecoPower’s wood would come from the forest. He also said he and others asked ecoPower representatives several years ago to agree to “binding standards as to where they would get their wood,” but that ecoPower declined.
Asked in an interview whether the ecoPower plant would result in a net increase in area logging, ecoPower CEO Gary Crawford said, “I can’t represent that to you, absolutely.”
And there’s also the issue of air pollution. The ecoPower plant’s air permit lays out the amount of particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other pollutants the facility can emit. And Kentucky Division of Air Quality Director Sean Alteri said there aren’t any special standards for biomass plants; the limits are the same as they would be for a similarly-sized fossil fuel plant. There aren’t currently any regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from biomass facilities, but a recent court decision could mean that if the ecoPower facility ever expands or modifies the permit, it might have to limit its CO2 emissions.
But the ultimate test of environmental sustainability is efficiency. Around the country, utility companies are increasing efficiency efforts in an effort to avoid building new power plants. No matter how clean or dirty the ecoPower project is, the question remains: is it needed?