Critics Question Renewable Fuel at Ohio Electric Plant

As electric utilities scramble to reduce pollution and meet new state renewable energy regulations, one Ohio company has decided to scrap coal altogether and switch to biomass. That could help clean up Pittsburgh's air - but environmentalists are wondering whether the impacts to land use and the ecosystem are worth the trade-off. The Allegheny Front's Karen Schaefer reports.

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OPEN: For years, Pennsylvanians, and particularly Pittsburghers, have blamed air pollution problems on our neighbors to the west - namely, coal-fired power plants in Ohio. One company has won approval to convert a badly polluting plant to run on biomass. But The Allegheny Front's Karen Schaefer reports that utilities looking to switch to biomass may face roadblocks.

Sound of female TV anchor, 'The EPA and Carnegie Mellon University agree some neighborhoods in Allegheny County have the worst environmental pollution in the nation,' under:

SCHAEFER: The American Lung Association said this year that greater Pittsburgh no longer has the dirtiest air in the country. But the region still ranks among the three worst for fine particle soot that contributes to smog. Jim Thompson heads the Allegheny County Health Department's Air Quality program. He says that most pollution is from outside the state.

THOMPSON: In fact, 75-percent of the pollution that we measure in Allegheny County comes from upwind sources.

SCHAEFER: A lawsuit brought several years ago by New England states is forcing at least one Ohio utility to clean up its act. The federal government is telling FirstEnergy ñ the nation's fifth largest electricity company ñ to reduce pollution at its R.E. Burger plant in Shadyside, Ohio, on the border with West Virginia. But instead of adding pollution controlling scrubbers at Burger, FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin says the Ohio utility has decided to try something new. It's going to fuel the plant with biomass.

DURBIN: The scrubbers could have been anywhere from 400 to 600-million dollars and that's just for a small plant that has some age to it. And that's why the 200-million dollar project that is the biomass made sense for us to try to pursue that.

SCHAEFER: By biomass, Durbin says he means wood chips, pellets, corn stalks, switchgrass ñ whatever burnable, woody material the utility can buy from suppliers. And Durbin says there's another reason to go with what many consider a renewable fuel source.

DURBIN: With the state setting their renewable standards as part of the new energy law, we needed to find opportunities to use renewable energy. And one of the nice advantages of the biomass is, it's dispatchable. Meaning we can just use the biomass like we would coal, fire up the plant and it's available 24/7.

SCHAEFER: The Burger plant is slated to be up and running on 80-percent biomass by 2012. If it meets that target, it will likely be the largest biomass-to-electricity generator in the country. And Durbin says the company projects even larger reductions in air pollutants using biomass than with scrubbers alone. But biomass produces less energy than coal. According to one US Department of Energy estimate it will take nearly twice as much biomass to generate the same amount of electricity using coal. And that's leading some Ohio environmentalists to wonder where all that biomass will come from.

KANFER: I don't think such a reliable and long-term supply is out there.

SCHAEFER: Nachy Kanfer is an activist with the Ohio Sierra Club, one of several groups that have raised concerns over the Burger plant conversion.

KANFER: We at Sierra Club speak of biomass as really not going to be a big piece of the energy supply, because there's not that much waste wood out there that's not already being harvested for paper or wood products or other things.

SCHAEFER: Kanfer says to get the biomass it needs, FirstEnergy will have to find suppliers who can raise fast-growing plants like switchgrass or cottonwood trees. And that worries some researchers like Rattan Lal, a Nobel-prize winning soil scientist at Ohio State University who has been experimenting with switchgrass. Lal says it would take a lot of land globally to fuel existing coal plants.

Sound of Lal tapping on his calculator and muttering the calculations, THEN:

LAL: It's 50-million additional acres of land. Any land that we divert away from food production eventually is the price that we are paying.

SCHAEFER: Lal says globally we're already using more than 15-hundred million hectares to grow food and more will be needed. He points out what happened when U.S. farmers diverted thousands of acres of corn crops to ethanol production.

LAL: You may remember two years ago, the price of a tortilla went up considerably in Mexico, there were riots. There were riots in ten, twelve countries.

SCHAEFER: Even denser biomass like cottonwood will require huge tracts of land. One Florida study estimates harvests of 19-tons of biomass a year from one acre of fast-growing cottonwood. The million tons FirstEnergy needs annually for Burger would require a farmed forest one and a half times the size of Pittsburgh. And that's just one plant. Other utilities like AEP are also considering converting Ohio coal plants to biomass.

Professor Cliff Davidson is an air quality researcher at Syracuse University. Heís concerned that in the rush to switch to less polluting, more carbon-neutral fuels, the natural ecosystem could be at risk.

DAVIDSON: As we use more land for our own purposes, that means less land for ecosystems. So where in the hierarchy is the priority for allowing biodiversity to continue?

SCHAEFER: But like many states, Ohio's energy law doesn't distinguish between renewable fuels and those that are sustainable over the long term. Officials believe the biomass experiment is one worth making.

Researchers and activists do agree that replacing coal with biomass will improve air quality. But of the 75-percent of pollution coming into Pittsburgh from outside sources, FirstEnergy's Burger plant contributes only about three-percent. Pittsburgh air quality officials say the biggest gains will come from pollution control devices now being installed at other plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Karen Schaefer.