An Alabama holding company plans to build two wood-burning power plants in the Athens area and one might become operational as soon as April.
Together, the two plants in Franklin and Madison counties would consume about a million tons of wood each year and produce nearly 140 megawatts of electricity, according to documents filed with the state Environmental Protection Division.
The EPD’s Air Quality Branch earlier this summer approved one of the two pollution permit applications filed by GreenFuels Holding Company of Birmingham for a 79 megawatt plant near the Franklin County town of Carnesville.
The company filed its application for a 58 megawatt plant near Colbert about two weeks ago. State officials won’t begin to evaluate it for another couple of weeks, until a 30-day window has passed when the public can make formal comments, said Eric Cornwell, the Air Quality Branch’s program manager for stationary source permitting.
GreenFuels has a policy to not comment publicly to media, said GreenFuels vice president Steven Ingle.
But much of what the company has planned is outlined in documents on file with the state detailing their predicted emissions of pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrochloric acid.
Some environmentally minded groups calculate that even though burning biomass is a lot like burning coal, biomass power generation can still be a net plus for the environment. But that depends on factors such as the sources of wood burned, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report.
Biomass has become the new coal, argues ecologist Mary Booth of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, an energy policy advocacy group founded by former members of the Environmental Working Group.
Biomass plants are allowed to emit twice as much pollution as an equivalent coal plant, Booth argued in a 2014 report on electricity production from biomass. The Carnesville plant will be one of the larger biomass plants in the country, she said.
Both plants would emit hundreds of tons of pollution a year, but not enough to cause significant deterioration of air quality, according to the applications.
GreenFuels executives also assured Franklin County officials that pollution from the Carnesville Plant wouldn’t harm air quality, said Franklin County Commission Chairman Thomas Bridges.
Called the “Franklin Renewable Energy Facility,” the plant near Carnesville will burn about 607,650 tons a year of woody biomass – primarily clean construction and demolition material, according to the EPD application.
Likewise, the Colbert plant will operate on 411,513 tons a year of clean C&D wood, defined in the application as ‘separated urban waste wood, primary wood waste, pallet waste, mill residues and separated construction and demolition waste.”
That’s material that would otherwise wind up in a landfill, Cornwell said.
Engineers calculated expected annual maximum emissions for the Carnesville plant at 224 tons a year of carbon monoxide, the same amount of nitrogen oxide, 106.5 tons of sulfur dioxide, 60.6 tons of volatile organic compounds and 16 tons of hazardous air pollutants, including 8.1 tons of hydrogen chloride.
The Colbert plant’s projected maximum pollution numbers are close to the same: 224 tons per year of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, 85.8 tons of sulfur dioxide, 47.7 tons of volatile organic compounds and 21.6 tons of hazardous air pollutants, including 8.1 tons of hydrogen chloride.
They ask for upper limits of 249 tons per year on key pollutants in both applications; if emissions hit 250 tons per year for pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, different regulations apply.
The Carnesville plant is very large for a biomass plant, said Booth, who is skeptical that it can meet its stated limits.
“There is no way a 79 megawatt plant is not going to be emitting at least 250 tons of carbon monoxide,” she said.
The Franklin County plant will be built at the same spot where another company had earlier proposed to build a much smaller plant. That plant was projected to have a 28.5 megawatt capacity at a construction cost of $70 million.
In June, Moody’s graded debt financing to cover part of the costs for the 79-MW Carnesville project and a smaller, 35-MW plant that will burn chicken litter near Lumberton, N.C. The investors service gave a “first-time provisional” rating to $225 million in notes to be issued by Georgia Renewable Power LLC, owned by GreenFuels, and Georgia Power Finance Corp. GreenFuels has long-term contracts in hand or being negotiated to sell electricity to the Georgia Power Company and Duke Power Company, according to Moody’s.
Under existing and proposed federal policies, utility companies are being pushed to obtain or produce more power from sources considered sustainable, including biomass.
The Franklin County Industrial Development Authority helped with financing, Bridges said.
And the county will benefit directly and indirectly from the plant, he said. Franklin County will get additional property tax revenue and the plant will also bring some number of jobs to the county, both at the plant and in hauling wood to it, he said.
Most biomass plans in Georgia so far have not gotten beyond the planning and approval stage, Cornwell said.
The EPD has permitted eight or nine such plants over the past several years, but only two have actually been built and became operational – one near Barnesville and one in the northeast corner of the state.
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