Few change minds on prison biomass power project

A few dozen concerned residents showed up Monday at a public workshop aimed at allaying fears that a small wood-fired power plant proposed for the Northern Nevada Correctional Center might be an environmental hazard. The vast majority of them left with unchanged opinions.

Most of the plant's critics agreed it wouldn't be massive polluter, but said even a minuscule polluter is too much.

"There's already an over-balance of carbon in the atmosphere," said Carson City resident Doug Minter. " We don't need to add to it."

Engineering consultants hired by the prison came armed with data and graphs that showed a one-megawatt wood chip-burning power plant like the one proposed for South Carson City would produce minimal pollution, not like one might imagine of a wood-burning facility.

"Twenty years ago, if you walked by a smokestack with a white shirt on, you'd have black spots on your shirt," said Air Permitting Specialists official Ray Kapahi. "That doesn't happen anymore."

The plant for which the prison is now seeking a special-use permit from the city will burn so hot, virtually no smoke will be coming out of the 50-foot high smokestack, APS says.

A wood-fired plant will produce less nitrogen oxide, a greenhouse gas, than a similar natural gas plant. It will produce quite a bit more particulate matter than a gas plant, however, since gas shouldn't produce any at all, and particulate matter is linked with health problems, including asthma.

Biomass is not as clean as natural gas, Kapahi agreed, but it's not very dirty either and it has a slew of other benefits, he said.

Using dried wood-chips gets the prison free of the volatile gas market, which has been chaotic in recent years as exploration for new reserves has lagged expected demand. It also helps keep wood out of the landfill, extending the municipal dump's life span and lessening the amount of harmful gases that come out from the decomposing heaps. And it's being promoted by state foresters and the Nevada Fire Safe Council as the preferred way to get rid of dead timber harvested from the wildfire-prone Sierra Nevada.

The sheer amount of dead wood that needs to be pulled from the western Nevada forests is the reason biomass was chosen for the prison, said APS official Will Travers. The fuel is right here, it's abundant and it needs to go.

None of those benefits swayed many of the plant's opponents much, however. Some of them pointed out the dirty-brown air of Los Angeles, which has far tougher air quality standards than Nevada. A fairly clean plant, they said, isn't the same thing as a totally clean plant.

"Which would you rather have, health or money?" said Minter.

What's next

What: Carson City Planning


When: 3:30 p.m. May 25

Where: Sierra Room, Community Center, 851 E. William St.


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