Rob Brinkman: Why we need GRU biomass


Published: Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 11:42 p.m.

I have been involved in the community discussion of Gainesville's future energy supply over the last seven years. There have recently been letters in The Sun questioning the choice of a biomass power plant as a renewable baseload power (available 24/7) source for our community.

By definition, a renewable energy resource must be replaced by natural processes and thus not diminish in availability over time. Biomass represents stored energy from the sun through the process of photosynthesis. Biomass and many other forms of renewable energy ultimately derive from solar energy.

The Stewardship Incentive Plan for Biomass Procurement, part of the contract between GRU and American Renewables, which is the company building the biomass plant, specifies that suppliers must reforest their land. An innovative certification incentive program provides a $1 per wet ton premium payment for fuel with Forest Stewardship Council certification.

The plan also bans the use of whole trees unless they are part of a pre-approved forest management plan, such as to restore long leaf pine forests.

According to a study done for the Public Service Commission on the potential of all forms of renewable energy in Florida, there is enough logging residue currently available, but not collected, to supply 354 to 566 MW (million watts) of biomass generation on a continuous and sustainable basis. This exceeds the output of all of the pending biomass plant permits (260 MW) and others (155 MW) possibly anticipated by the state.

Both GRU and American Renewables have commissioned their own studies of biomass supply in the region.

The use of fossil fuels amounts to the transport through time of ancient carbon from millions of years ago into the present day atmospheric carbon cycle.

Burning biomass does release CO2 but it does not increase the atmospheric concentration of CO2 because the CO2 released was taken up from the atmosphere as the biomass grew, thus it is termed carbon neutral.

A Nature Conservancy report (http://conserveonline.org/library/report-forest-carbon-strategies-in-climate-change/view.html) cites the Garcia River carbon sequestration project, in Northern California, where thinning forests to allow bigger trees to grow faster and taller resulted in more carbon being sequestered.

If these trees removed during thinning were used to generate biomass power, this would amount to carbon negative, rather than merely carbon neutral, power. This is because more carbon would be sequestered in the forest than would have had the smaller trees not been removed and used to generate renewable baseload power.

It may be possible to restore more ecologically diverse forests, such as native long leaf pine, while producing renewable biomass power and reducing atmospheric CO2.

Burning biomass in a power plant does emit some pollution; however, 10 times more particulates are released by the current field burning of biomass that will be used for fuel.

A comparison of the emissions from Gainesville's coal plant and the proposed biomass plant shows that per unit of energy generated, the biomass plant will produce only 42 percent of the total particulates, only 10 percent of the nitrogen oxides (a smog precursor) and about 3 percent of the SO2 (forms acid rain) as our coal plant currently generates.

GRU contracts with Progress Energy for 50 MW of baseload power, primarily from coal. While GRU has enough reliable generation without purchasing additional baseload capacity, the use of far more costly natural gas generators would be required more often. This would increase the cost of electricity for GRU customers.

Biomass is the least costly form of renewable energy available to Gainesville in sufficient quantity to meet our needs.

As we move into 2010, GRU has about 4 MW of customer owned solar connected to the grid, thanks to the very successful feed in tariff program. It would take more than a hundred times this 4 MW of installed solar capacity to equal the energy output of the proposed biomass plant. GRU pays a premium price for solar while biomass will be competitive with power from natural gas.

Our current reliance on coal (GRU burns 1,900 tons per day on average) is simply unsustainable. While biomass will probably not supply all of our baseload power needs, it will be a critical component in reducing our addiction to coal.

We need this plant as a hedge against future regulations of carbon emissions. We need it to reduce particulate emissions from the open burning of biomass. This biomass plant will reduce pollution, save money, create jobs and help to provide a cleaner, safer and sustainable future.

Rob Brinkman is an environmental activist who lives in Gainesville.

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