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Making Hay From Woody Waste

Biomass, for those areas with a reliable supply of woody waste, could be a dream source of renewable energy and the ideal enemy of carbon release. If only someone would try it ...
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The state of Maryland spits out more than 800,000 tons a year of “woody waste,” or the tree trimmings from your yard, the carnage of heavy storms and the natural decay of urban parks and forests. Mother Nature’s refuse is given about the same empty value as whatever’s in your kitchen trash can, and generally, it just sits there or is trucked to a landfill.

The stuff could, though, help solve the renewable energy search.

Forget about solar power, hydroelectric dams or windmills — “red herrings” in the fight to replace fossil fuels, as one researcher calls them. The best answer may be biomass: woody waste and — in slightly trickier forms — cow manure and even municipal waste that could power and heat entire towns in the United States.

“I have this belief that if something is logical, it will happen,” energy consultant Bill Rodenberg said. “If something is illogical, it will go away eventually. It just does not make sense to take our biomass, our municipal waste, and bury it in a landfill where it will emit greenhouse gases for the next 100 years.”

Rodenberg wants to take some of those 800,000 tons and transport them to Thurmont, Md., grind them, gasify them, burn that gas and use it to light up all of that town about 45 minutes outside of Washington, D.C.

With $75,000 in grant money from the state of Maryland, he’s just completed a feasibility study for building Thurmont a 30-megawatt biomass power plant. He concluded that, yes, this is possible — politically, financially and technologically.

Now the town of 6,000 has to decide if it believes a man whose prophesy sounds a little like black magic.
Thurmont has historically run its own power distribution plant, a byproduct of producing its own hydroelectric power in the late 1800s. Now, every five years, Thurmont negotiates a new contract with Allegheny Power to purchase electricity off the grid. The 2007 contract hit residents with a 46 percent price increase, prompting, after more than a century, a new discussion about how the town might generate its own power.

Some suggested a diesel generator. Then Rodenberg, who has an office on Thurmont’s Main Street, began to develop the idea of a $70 million biomass plant that would run on woody waste but could, in the future, use just about any form of waste or harvested feedstock.

“If they could do that back then,” Mayor Martin Burns said of the town’s forebears in the 1890s, “imagine the conversation they went through when somebody talked about (generating our own power). It was probably the same thing we’re talking about now.”

Avoiding the next price hike in 2011 has been the primary motivation for people whose natural inclination is always toward familiarity. With biomass, the problem has never been the technology. The technology exists. The problem is getting people to use it — especially when few others are.

The principle behind Rodenberg’s proposal is as old as the campfire.

“Everybody’s looking for a new solution, rather than the one that worked just fine for their grandfathers,” said Tom Reed, the chief scientist at the Biomass Energy Foundation in Golden, Colo. “They all heated their houses with wood. We can do so much better than that today.”

A biomass power plant can turn that wood into heat and electricity while cleaning up the emissions in a way your grandfather — or a coal-fired plant — could never do at home. Taking advantage of that fact today isn’t so much about an evolution in technology but an evolution in thinking.

“When I grew up, we had an incinerator in our backyard, and we just took our garbage out there every night and burned it,” recalled Marcia Patton-Mallory, the biomass and bioenergy coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. Later, we realized open burning contributes to poor air quality, and we began to bury the waste in landfills. Now, we know we’re running out of room there.

Coal power plants continue to be the norm today because they run on a relatively cheap resource, but economics is no longer the only consideration as we take the next step in our evolution of thinking about woody waste and other forms of biomass.

“If people are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, biomass makes a lot of sense,” Patton-Mallory said. “It’s working with the short carbon cycle, rather than using carbon from ancient fossil fuels.”

Biomass power plants do emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, but they release no more than what is naturally in the carbon cycle as trees are planted, downed — by man or nature — and replanted. Coal and oil, on the other hand, constitute really old biomass that was taken out of the carbon cycle generations ago.

The oil shortage in the late 1970s, as well as the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, prompted a boom in construction of biomass plants. But when that energy crisis passed, so too did the interest in renewable sources, and some of those plants were never completed.

“There has not been, since the early 1980s, the interest in biomass that there is right now,” said Bill Carlson, a California biomass energy consultant.

He points to several factors: the high price of fossil fuels and the moral desire to wean ourselves off of them; the fear of being held hostage by foreign oil companies; and the new concept that we ought to reduce our carbon footprint.

“Biomass is better at that than anything else,” Carlson said. Turning existing biomass into energy not only results in a zero net footprint but also staves off the ugly alternative ends to dealing with the material — burning it, burying it or letting it rot until it produces methane gas.

“That,” Carlson said, “is just now beginning to be recognized as a true benefit of biomass.”

Environmentalists, who have long pushed the conversation on renewable energy, historically haven’t been strong advocates of biomass power plants. “They give it short shrift in a lot of places,” Carlson said, “simply because it has a smokestack.”

That’s true. But what comes out of the stack is benign. And many biomass advocates argue that such plants are a preferable energy source to any other option on the green menu (where a local supply of woody waste exists). For example, wind, water and solar power aren’t continuously available (although energy storage ideas are being booted about).

And then there’s biomass’s unique ability to put to use an otherwise unwanted material. For the last four years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been awarding grants to small businesses and communities to develop biomass projects, with the twofold goal of unloading the fire-hazard woody waste in the nation’s forests and encouraging the development of renewable energy.

The Forest Service wants to be a part of the supply chain that includes — according to a seminal 2005 USDA and U.S. Department of Energy study tabbed the “Billion Ton Report” — more than a billion annual tons of biomass feedstock in the U.S. that could be used for renewable energy. That impressive figure comes with one caution: Biomass plants are only cost-effective as long as their size remains in proportion to the local supply. Truck your woody waste in from too far away, and the whole project no longer makes sense.

To help communities make that calculation, and the host of others involved, the Forest Service this year also began looking for companies to assist with the exact kind of project Thurmont is considering.

On June 16, Rodenberg presented his feasibility study at Thurmont’s weekly commissioners’ meeting. There were a few logistical questions —  “Can we use two-by-fours?” — and then Commissioner Robert Lookingbill announced his big concern.

“J.K. Rowling writes fantasy books, and she usually tries to write them with happy endings,” he said, pointing next to the suspiciously happy ending in Rodenberg’s study. “The problem for me is telling fact from fiction. I just can’t believe, if it’s that good of a deal, why every little town in the U.S. isn’t trying to build one of these.”

Patton-Mallory said a lot of people are talking about it — they just don’t know others are talking about it, too, or that many towns in northern Europe, some U.S. college campuses and individual industries and facilities in the United States have already done it.

Lookingbill’s question captures the Catch-22 of new technology (or, rather, existing technology people think is new): If everyone waited for someone else to do something first, how would anything new happen?

“Inertia,” Rodenberg calls it. During the public comment, one resident implored the commissioners to find one of these things and visit it, even if they have to fly to South Africa to do so. Another resident walked to the microphone and turned directly to Rodenberg.

“Bill,” he said, “that statement — that somewhere people are doing this — is that a true statement?”

The answer is complicated. People are doing this in different technical forms, on different scales, and to different ends but nowhere in Maryland quite like this. Lew McCreery, the Forest Service’s northeast area biomass coordinator, couldn’t think of a whole municipality in the U.S. running on biomass.

Thurmont’s faith comes from the vague sense that people in power believe in the project. “They don’t just throw money at dreams,” Mayor Burns reasoned of the state.

Chris Rice, the biomass program manager at the Maryland Energy Administration, which put up half of the grant money for the study, doesn’t consider this fiction at all.

“But it’s not sexy,” he said. “It’s not a solar panel or a windmill. It doesn’t get a lot of attention. So for the townspeople who are kind of skittish, saying, ‘Wow, we don’t want to be the first,’ the reason why they haven’t heard about it is that it’s not sexy.”

Still, Thurmont would be joining a generation of municipal pioneers. And eventually — but probably not on the tight timeline to complete the plant by 2011 envisioned by Rodenberg — the town will have to decide if it’s willing to step onto that frontier.

Rodenberg ducked out of the Monday night meeting after an hour of discussing the plant, once the commissioners had moved on to the next agenda item. He stood outside with his wife Ann wondering where he could take these people to show them what they need to see.

He settled for taking Ann across town for a sort-of-celebratory drink. The discussion will go on, which is better than nothing but not quite as good as committing to the next stage of permit procurement.

Inside the Irish pub, Fox News’ Sean Hannity was leading a debate on the corner TV about, of all things, soaring oil costs. Two congressmen were sparring over whether to address the $140 barrel by expanding the supply with U.S. offshore drilling or reducing the demand through new energy sources. California Democrat Adam Schiff wanted to shift the tax breaks currently given to the oil industry to renewable energy.

“We’re talking about shifting those tax benefits to the solar industry,” he said, “to geothermal, wind energy.”

And no sooner had he said it than, from behind their drinks, Rodenberg and his wife let out a joint, exasperated cry. Solar! Geothermal!

Why isn’t anyone talking about biomass?

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