46,000 Square Miles Of Forest Needed To Supply 120 Planned US Wood-Fired Power Plants

good ol'southern pine chips photo

Southern pine wood chips. Image credit:USDA Southern Research Station. Research Update, Wood to Energy

Biomass burning for electricity still looks to be a political and environmental black hole, presenting more dreadful questions than a tree hugger can shake a blog at. Why, for example, are 120 wood burning power plants being planned in multiple US states? Are banks and managing utilities planning for biomass (a euphemism for wood-fired) just to meet state renewable energy goals? Is it a coincidence that the projects are scheduled for upgrading mostly for small- to medium-sized existing coal-fired power plants?

Mainstream media are 'missing the forest for the trees' on this issue and the underlying reasons may surprise you. From Ohio.com, we have a context to think about this issue. Burning Ohio trees at Burger sets fire to debate.

Nationally, there are 102 biomass plants that generate electricity in 21 states, according to the Biomass Power Association, a national trade group. Biomass accounts for 1.2 percent of America's electricity.

More than 120 wood-burning biomass power plants have been proposed in the past three years. They would require 46,000 square miles of forests -- an area the size of Pennsylvania -- to be cleared by 2025, according to one national eco-group.

Yes, it is true that renewable energy credits offered by numerous states offer a strong financial incentive to convert, in whole or in part, from coal to wood burning. But, there are far more powerful market and regulatory forces operating in parallel to this incentive. By my count, here are the top four reasons wood is being fed to boilers originally designed for coal.

  • Coal has been getting steadily more expensive. As reported by the USEIA,, "The average price of coal delivered to the electric power sector increased from $2.15 per million Btu in the last month of the fourth quarter of 2009 to $2.31 per million Btu in the last month of the first quarter of 2010." Mountain top removal expenses are likely to increase.

  • Wood is presently cheap because of the economic downturn cutting consumption by traditional forest product-based industries. Demand for wood by both the construction and the pulp and paper industry is down. Hence, suppliers of wood chips and pellets are likely to offer favorable prices and terms to biomass burners.

  • Wood ash is less toxic than coal ash, and hence cheaper to manage in the future. Low risk of EPA regs requiring disposal in expensive hazardous waste fills.

  • The elephant on the coal pile, however, is this. Wood fired power plant stack emissions are relatively low in SOX and PM2.5 particulates compared to stack emissions produced by coal. Utilities can meet their emission permit limits by simply switching to wood - without investing in expensive new air pollution equipment. The proportion of wood to coal in the fuel feed can be varied depending on the monthly total emissions limits and the pricing of the two fuels, respectively. That gives utilities a lot of flexibility.

Comments & More Questions
Am I suggesting that coal fired electricity is not so bad in comparison to wood fired? No!

I am saying that we - the government in particular - should be thoughtful about unintended consequences of new air emission regulations.

Look over the preceding list with an eye toward what will happen when the economy rebounds. Wood prices will go up; but so will prices for coal. It's likely to be a wash.

Environmental regulations promulgated under the US Clean Air Act may be a primary force behind the biomass power movement. Too soon too tell whether local opposition to such planned projects will hold many of them back. The wild card will be the capitol expenses required for controlling wood fired emissions, under rules promulgated by USEPA.

As for biochar, the utility exec asks himself, 'why burn wood only half the way?'

It would be interesting to see a table for both coal and wood (by species) equating power plant generating capacity, controlled and uncontrolled air emissions and solid waste generation. Has anyone seen such an animal?

The unknown and the bitter. where will the fuel destined for these hundreds of biomass burners (wood burners mostly) come from; and what will be its form? Private forests? National forest lands? Imports? Pellets vs chips?

Remember the interstate commerce clause. Only the Feds can regulate trans-boundary shipping of biomass. And lobbyists control Washington DC.

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