Gainesville man sees energy in area's trees

Tom Cunilio is spearheading a group to promote the use of biomass as an energy source.

A tractor-trailer rig dumps a load of wood chips at Woodland Biomass Power Ltd. in Woodland, Calif. The facility converts wood chips into power, which provides electricity to about 25,000 homes.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 11:10 p.m.
When Tom Cunilio looks at the glades of skinny pine trees that line Alachua County's roads and the piles of tree debris that dot its countryside, he sees energy.
In the past, the Gainesville agronomist and tree farmer has lobbied Gainesville Regional Utilities to increase the amount of biomass - organic matter ranging from trees to landfill gas that can be burned and turned into electricity - it will use to fuel the power plant it plans to build in the next few years.
Now, Cunilio wants to set up a federally sponsored council of volunteers to promote the use of biomass for fuel in a five-county area that would center in Alachua County, which he said is perfectly suited for using wood to fuel power plants.
Tuesday marks the first official meeting for the Resource Development and Conservation group, which Cunilio said could seek funding for things like building new biomass-burning plants in small cities, restarting a now-defunct wood-burning plant near Starke or supporting biomass-burning initiatives from University of Florida professors.
With much of the state's paper-making industry being shipped offshore and energy independence remaining a hot topic locally and nationally, local energy experts said whatever the fate of Cunilio's group, the ideas behind it have footing in Alachua County.
How they work The concept of burning biomass for fuel isn't new.
For the past hundred years or so, paper mills have burned bark, small branches and other tree parts they couldn't use for paper to help fuel their operations, said John Irving, manager of one of the larger and older wood-burning plants in the nation in Burlington, Vt.
But utilities didn't start applying the process to the public sector until about the 1970s, when high fuel prices led several municipalities and private entrepreneurs in New England to seek alternative fuel sources, Irving said.
Instead of blowing coal dust into a boiler, as is the case with a conventional coal-fired power plant, a conveyer belt loads wood chips onto a grate on the bottom of a boiler. The boiler has four walls, and is lined with water-filled tubes, and the burning chips heat the water and turn it into steam.
That steam rushes toward a turbine that looks like a jet engine. The steam spins a turbine that generates electricity.
Most biomass-burning plants provide 30 or 40 megawatts of electricity, while coal-burning plants can provide 200 megawatts or more, experts said.
By comparison, initial plans for GRU's coal-burning plant call for a plant that would burn about 30 megawatts of biomass of its 220 megawatts overall.
Do it right, Irving said, and harvesting trees for a biomass-burning plant can promote healthier forests by thinning weak, skinny trees so the hardier ones can grow stronger.
Trees, a common biomass fuel and Cunilio's main focus, are a renewable resource, and they're locally available for New England and for Florida, making wood-burning plants popular among environmentalists. Though wood releases carbon dioxide when it's burned, trees naturally take in carbon dioxide. And wood burns without releasing air-polluting emissions associated with burning fossil fuels like coal.
Donald L. Rockwood, a UF forestry professor, also said biomass-fueled plants can be good for local economies. At a 75-megawatt South Florida plant that burns wood and sugarcane residue, Rockwood said studies showed that $5 of every $6 spent on the plant stayed in the local economy.
Burning biomass could create a market for the tree debris that now gets stashed in piles to rot, like the bark, branches and leaves the paper and building industries can't use, said Wayne H. Smith, past director of the University of Florida's School of Forest Resources and Conservation.
But running a wood-fueled plant can be tricky, said Irving, who added that his plant keeps four foresters on staff to make sure they're harvesting trees in sustainable ways.
"If you do it correctly, you can do a lot of good," Irving said. "If we harvested the trees improperly, though, we could be doing a lot of damage."
Obstacles Biomass may be friendly to the environment and to local economies, but coal is cheap and plentiful and carbon-dense, meaning there's as much energy in a small amount of coal as there is in a much larger volume of wood chips, Irving said.
That can lead to lots of truck traffic bringing around local plants, as well as high transportation costs, he said.
In addition, utility providers are used to working with coal, which contractors can guarantee in large amounts for long periods of time, while a utility may have to secure dozens of shorter term contracts for wood, Smith said.
"Most of the power plant folks have not used or dealt with wood infrastructure," Smith said. "They say, we know what we're doing, so why venture into the unknown?"
Then, there's winning over the public the plant will serve.
"Most of the time, if you get a community that wants it, then you won't have many obstacles," said Tom O'Reilly, plant manager of a 20-megawatt wood-fueled plant in Ryegate, Vt. "Everyone's afraid of having something that's going to have too many trucks, too much traffic."
Cunilio's goals Cunilio has already held a few informational meetings for the group in Newberry, a city of about 3,500 west of Gainesville.
More than 40 people assembled for the most recent meeting in December, including UF professors, representatives from GRU and Progress Energy, officials from other cities and even a School Board member, though many said they only attended to get more information.
Mark Spiller, strategic planning utility analyst for GRU, was among those who attended. He said Cunilio's proposals were interesting, but some of his goals were at odds with GRU's plans.
Cunilio suggests growing trees specifically to be harvested for fuel.
In fact, Cunilio started the group in part to address the timber market, which he and other foresters have said is depressed because so many paper mills are leaving the United States.
"The real question is how much biomass can we get at a reasonable price," Spiller said. "The idea of dedicated biomass plantations is very interesting, certainly, but our initial plans are to take wood that's currently not being utilized from the forestry industry and recycle it."
Public officials in Newberry said they're waiting to hear more details about the group, especially Cunilio's proposal to build a biomass-burning plant in the city.
Though they're letting Cunilio use the city's space for meetings, Newberry Mayor John Glanzer said the city hasn't committed to the proposal in any way.
"I don't want to criticize the group, but it seems in some cases it's put the cart before the horse," Glanzer said. "They're all potentially good projects, but the fact of the matter is that right now, they're just things that maybe they might want to do."
But many experts said whether Cunilio's group succeeds in its goals or not, there's a reason biomass fuel has acquired the buzz it has in the region.
North Central Florida's warm, humid climate yields a long growing season for trees, and Alachua County and surrounding areas have acres of land available for growing, Rockwood said.
"There aren't the restrictions here that we'd be talking about with a northern climate," Rockwood said. "A number of issues taken together are causing people to seriously look at all renewable fuels, and for our area, biomass is certainly a promising renewable."
Amy Reinink can be reached at (352) 374-5088 or

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