Bisecting biomass |

Bisecting biomass

Cory McConnell
Appeal Staff Writer

Biomass is the term scientists, engineers and policy-makers use in reference to natural materials used as fuel to create energy. Biomass can be manure, wood or corn, among other things. From manure, methane can be produced; from corn, ethanol; and from wood, fire. Whether in an engine or a boiler, all are used to create energy.

Wood fuels a hot-burning fire that heats water into steam, which powers energy-producing turbines. Aside from a few nuclear power plants and waterfalls, this is how the nation’s energy is produced, although it’s usually coal or gas used as fuel rather than wood.

The prospect of using wood this way at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in South Carson City has its supporters as well as its detractors, both with their own strong points.

Opponents say

‘relatively’ clean

isn’t clean enough

Renewable doesn’t mean green

Biomass power production, the burning of organic material for fuel, is considered renewable by some because it only releases whatever carbon the plant sucked out of the environment in the first place. Therefore, it’s considered pollutant-neutral.

Biomass opponents say it’s just not the same.

Letting the material decompose naturally would release the compiled carbon over a matter of years, even centuries, and it would release much of it into the soil.

Despite the “renewable” designation, releasing all a tree’s carbon into the air all at once is far more hazardous to the environment than just leaving it be.

Every other type of renewable energy, such as geothermal, solar and wind power, produces no harmful emissions whatsoever.

Considering the world’s trees are being replaced as fast as they’re being harvested, the idea of trees being “renewed” is all theory anyway.

Carson City resident and World War II veteran Doug Minter also said there’s no reason to go on destroying more of the planet and releasing what nature has consumed. We’ve already put enough toxins and carbon monoxide out there, he said, and we’ve got the technology and ingenuity to find a better way.

Another polluter

Whatever emissions the plant creates, it will be a polluter – and some Carson City residents say any unnecessary pollution is too much.

Several former residents of California who moved to Carson City decades ago who attended a public workshop on the proposed plant May 16 said they moved to here to escape the ugliness and unhealthiness of the Golden State’s golden smog. California has far more strict air regulations than Nevada, but its air in many places is far worse because there are so many polluters, even if they are smaller.

There doesn’t seem to be any stopping of more people and cars into Nevada, the nation’s fastest-growing state, but that’s no reason to help speed the decline of Northern Nevada’s air.

“We don’t want to look like California,” said one of the plant’s main opponents, Roger Mitchell.

Clean per pound, but that’s a lot of pounds

While a hot-burning biomass plant releases a fraction of the pollutants of a normal fireplace, the fact that it burns thousands times more wood than a normal fireplace means it will actually be dirtier than the average next-door neighbor.

In a given year, the proposed plant will burn about 8,030 tons, or more than 16 million pounds, of dried wood. From that amount of wood, it will produce the same amount of toxins called Volatile Organic Compounds as about five fireplace-using homes would produce in one winter, if each home burned slightly more than one cord, about two tons.

The plant would produce the same amount of carbon monoxide as about 262 homes and about as much particulate matter as 67 homes.

Even though it would produce far less greenhouse and acid rain-causing gases than a fossil fuel plant, it would produce thousands times more than a fireplace.

The next large subdivision that gets built in Carson City, with its cars, people, lawn mowers and some fireplaces, will probably end up being a larger polluter than the proposed biomass plant but that’s not a very ringing endorsement.

Tiny bubbles

The area where wood-burning boilers perform the worst is particulate matter – little particles that don’t burn completely and instead float away into the air.

Increasing levels of particulate matter have been linked with increased mortality, illness, poorer respiratory health and doctor and emergency room visits. High levels of particulate matter also trigger attacks in asthmatics.

Nevada is no stranger to particulate matter. Dust storms are the equivalent of particulate matter fallout, and the dry air lends itself to more particulates. But the little bits coming out of the proposed biomass plant will likely be far smaller and more able to penetrate deeper into the lungs.

The plant will emit about half the particulate matter air-quality standards allow, but Carson City residents like Scott Leftwich, who has an asthmatic child, fear it will still wreak havoc on its nearby neighbors’ lungs.

Proponents: Plant to be relatively clean and save taxpayers’ money

Fuel to burn

There is nowhere else to put millions of tons of wood waiting to be recovered from forests as state, local and federal agencies kick their fire “fuel reduction” plans into action. Much of it will be sent off for lumber but whatever is unsuitable for lumber is destined for fireplaces, landfills or chipped and put back on the forest floor.

In the 50 miles surrounding Carson City alone, there will easily be enough of this unsuitable wood to support the small plant for years to come, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Nevada Commission on Economic Development.

Some of the unusable timber now pulled from the woods is chipped and spread on forest floors, a practice fire experts say is just adding fuel to a future blaze. And wood burned in household fireplaces or wood-burning stoves produces enormously larger amounts of toxins than it would if burned in a biomass plant.

Also, untreated lumber from construction scraps and old furniture, which may be chipped and used for fuel, now gets placed in a dump, where it serves no one by taking up space and contributing to the formation of noxious landfill gases as it decomposes along with all the other garbage.

Gouged by gas

Looking to save some dollars on energy bills and promote electric independence, state officials would like to see the Northern Nevada Correctional Center produce its own power. Many power plants in the West use natural gas to make electricity, but to do that, the prison would be exchanging one bill for another.

The natural gas market takes chaotic spikes and dives frequently when alarms sound that America’s reserves are depleted or that exploration for new underground pockets isn’t keeping up with increasing consumption. In the past six years, the wholesale price for gas has nearly tripled.

A small boiler system planned for South Lake Tahoe High School would also use wood chips to heat classrooms for about 61 percent of the cost of natural gas, according to the Fire Safe Council report. The high school gets its wood for about $75 a ton. The prison is slated to get its chips for about $30 a ton, a major reason for which is lower hauling costs since the wood is already being stripped, chipped and dried in east Carson City near the landfill, about 10 miles from the prison on Snyder Avenue.

The prison’s consultant for the project, APS Energy Services, estimates the plant will save taxpayers about $1.5 million in today’s dollars over the 20- to 30-year life span of the project.

“We look at this as good common-sense government,” said prison Administrator Fritz Schlottman.

Going renewable

There is only so much fossil fuel that can be tapped. Endless debate swirls around just how much, but the resource is finite.

While biomass fuel, whether wood, corn or animal waste, isn’t a totally clean source of energy like other alternative energy sources like wind, solar or geothermal power, it is considered the same under energy initiatives passed under the Bush Administration. The reasoning goes that these biomass sources can only release what toxins they’ve sucked up from the environment.

As long as the same amount of corn stalks and trees are grown as are taken out, there will be no net increase of pollutants into the environment. The burning of fossil fuel, meanwhile, is a complete net increase in toxins. And unlike oil or natural gas, the plant wouldn’t be using something that can’t be replaced.

“We’re trying to get away from the natural gas market and be renewable,” said Ray Kapahi, a permitting consultant working with APS Energy Services.

It’s not that dirty

Overall, hot-burning wood-fired boilers like the one planned for the prison are pretty clean.

The proposed plant would be burning dried wood chips, which burn far cleaner than any old log from the woods. There will likely be no visible smoke coming from the plant’s chimney.

According to a modeling study of the proposed plant, which was conducted with a state-administered model that every plant must use, emissions of most toxins from the 50-foot-tall smokestack would be about 99 percent less than federal air quality standards require. The largest pollutant coming from the plant will be particulate matter, which exacerbates health problems like asthma. But even the particulate matter emissions will be 49 percent below requirements.

The model, which includes wind patterns in the area, shows no place in Carson City that would come close to exceeding Ambivalent Air Quality standards because of the plant.

An official from APS Energy Services told Carson City Planning Commissioners earlier this month that the amount of traffic on Carson Street produces far more pollutants than the plant will.

“Even if you’re right there (next to it), you’re pretty low,” Kapahi said.

Biomass power production also produces far fewer gases that cause global warming and acid rain than similar fossil fuel-fired plants.

Proponents and opponents of a proposed wood-burning 1-megawatt power plant in Carson City are at odds over the project’s merits.

Proponents say the plant will be relatively clean and save taxpayer money.

Opponents say “relatively” clean isn’t clean enough.

Biomass decision

What: The Carson City Planning Commission could decide to allow a biomass plant at Northern Nevada Correctional Center

When: 3:30 p.m. Wednesday

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


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