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Biomass: Energy of the Future?

Listen NowOn a recent Tuesday evening, residents of Scottsburg, Indiana gathered in the plain white sanctuary of the First Southern Baptist Church—not to worship, but to protest.“We don’t need another burner that will put out more carbon dioxide and particulate matters than coal in our area.”This is Pat Berna.  She’s a nurse practitioner who has been organizing opposition to the biomass plants.  They worry the new plants will spew more pollution than coal-fired plants. Biomass is basically organic fuel: anything from wood chips, to switchgrass, to the leftovers from agricultural production.  It’s either burned or turned into a gas to create steam, which then turns a turbine to make electricity.  A pretty old technology in some ways, although the Scottsburg and Milltown plants will use a newer, more efficient method.  Still, Berna says it’s not enough.“We’ve looked at what they’re going to burn, and the regulations and the filtering just are not sufficient, nor will they adapt the better technologies," says Berna.She couldn’t say what those better technologies are, although she and other opponents cite a list of other problems they believe the plants will cause--including airborne soot and dust, increased traffic, and odor.  The plants’ developer, Liberty Green Renewables, says may of these claims are false.  But they weren’t allowed to respond at the meeting.  So I met Liberty Green partner Terry Naulty on the porch of a restaurant around the corner. I asked him what he made of so much vigorous opposition.“I think it’s a combination of not in my backyard and a general misunderstanding of the technology.”Naulty says one misunderstanding is about what the fuel really is.  It won’t be cut from trees in virgin forests, or grown on land that could be harnessed to produce food.“Well, this area of southern Indiana is actually a highly productive forest products industry.  And we have a lot of sawmills, a lot of furniture manufacturing, and the waste products that come from those operations is what we use as fuel," Naulty says.

But just because it’s renewable, is it cleaner?  The Environmental Protection Agency says biomass produces considerably fewer pollutants than coal.  There’s much lower toxic mercury and acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide.  And its global warming-producing carbon dioxide emissions are considered nominal.Richard Bain is an engineer with the National Renewable Energy Lab’s bioenergy center.  He says the biggest concerns with biomass plants built close to communities he’s studied are often the increased traffic and the potential odor of stored wood, if it gets wet. Liberty Green has proposed widening roods to handle that traffic and says it should be able to contain any odors on site.  But residents have one more concern: that the plant will release toxics into the water it uses to cool the boiler and then discharges.  Richard Bain says that won’t happen.“If you’re using it either for irrigation purposes or putting it into a municipal water treatment system, it should have no negative environmental impact.”Those are the two methods Liberty Green has elected to handle their waste water. They say the water never touches any of the fuel. It circulates through metal tubes several times and is then released. In Scottburg, it will go into the wastewater treatment system.  In Milltown, it will irrigate a field of switchgrass, which the company will also use for fuel onsite.  So, while opponents continue to fight them, environmental permits for the plants are pending.  And interest in biomass is picking up elsewhere, including in Kentucky, where some of the Governor’s top advisors believe biomass will be the most abundantly available renewable energy source for the future.

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