• Wood biomass power is just too expensive
    March 13,2013
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    It should come as no surprise that the North Springfield Energy Project, a project to build an industrial biomass plant in Springfield, still lacks a power contract.

    In pre-filed testimony presented to the Department of Public Service and reported in the Rutland Herald last Friday, Dr. Asa Hopkins testified that without a power purchase agreement the North Springfield facility serves neither Vermont’s renewable energy goals nor its electricity needs. In his testimony Dr. Hopkins took exception to statements by Dan Ingold, who testified for the North Springfield project.

    Given these latest developments in this ongoing story, concerned citizens should understand why the NSEP lacks a power purchase agreement at this time, despite their attempts over the last two years.

    In fact, the reasons can be found online and in the biomass news, both of which reveal that other biomass power plant projects have faced this same obstacle. Cases involving financial issues with contracts seem to be mounting if we look at what is taking place in developing biomass power around the country.

    One recent development took place in nearby Russell, Mass., last year. In Russell a half-built biomass plant was abandoned midstream by the builder after he realized that the plant could never meet efficiency standards set by the state of Massachusetts for the generation and sale of wood biomass power.

    A comment by one of Russell’s selectmen stated that the land abandoned in Russell by the power plant developer would henceforth be useless for generating tax revenue after the builder closed down the project.

    A problem of immediate significance for the North Springfield developer was reported in Austin, Texas, last week. In Austin, Statesman.com published a story on a new, industrial, wood-fired biomass plant that sits idle. Writer Mark Toohey reported, “For most of the seven months since it rumbled to life, a wood-burning power plant in East Texas hasn’t been producing electricity for Austin Energy customers.”

    The article noted that “(Texas) utilities sell their power into a statewide market, and the operators of the state grid choose the cheapest sources then dispatch them through the grid back to utilities that pay for the electricity ... The wood-waste plant’s electricity is so expensive that the state grid won’t buy it.” The Statesman article notes that the taxpayers are on the hook for maintaining the costs of the plant while it remains unproductive.

    It is important also to note here that the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington turns to alternative fuels, including fossil fuels, as the wood market dictates. McNeil and other biomass power plants originally justified as solutions to the dilemma of fossil fuels in fact burn fossil fuel when wood becomes uneconomical.

    These actions call into serious question the rationale for biomass burning by advocates of “renewable energy” and they challenge politicians who argue that curbing greenhouse gas is Vermont’s number one priority. Combustion of wood biomass produces greenhouse gas comparable to that of fossil fuels. And to make matters even less appealing, electricity from wood biomass comes at an even lesser efficiency than combustion of fossil fuel, as the Russell, Mass., case demonstrates.

    We Vermonters should insist that our elected officials refrain from the mistakes that were made by officials in Russell and by officials of Austin Energy in Texas, where the city agreed to purchase power from the biomass plant as part of a plan to aggressively invest in renewable energy. The Austin deal was based on the faulty premise that federal taxes on fossil fuels would make wood a cost-effective option. Unfortunately for the taxpayers and Austin Energy customers, the developer’s promise of affordable electricity from wood went up in smoke.

    Let us learn from the information and experience of Russell, Austin, and Burlington. Let’s be smarter. Most of all let’s insist that our elected officials be looking forward, not backward, as we chart Vermont’s energy future.

    Randall Susman is a resident of North Springfield.
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