Biomass, Renewables

Oglethorpe plans a biomass plant

Renewable energy is continuing to flourish in the United States. And with the majority of states creating renewable energy portfolios, power companies are getting on-board and receiving credits from both the state and federal level. With the increased tax incentives in place, development of new wood residue grid connected power plants has started said Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association.

One of those plants is being constructed by Oglethorpe Power Corp. Just a little over 100 miles southeast of Atlanta is a vast amount of Georgia pine trees in Warren County. This, the home of the large three-needled pine, is where Oglethorpe, the largest power supply cooperative in the country, is planning to break ground on its 100 MW wood-burning power generation plant in the second quarter of 2011.

“I am just ready to get out there and start moving some dirt and building the project,” said Senior Vice President of Construction Keith Russell.

Unlike states such as Maine and California, where biomass markets have matured, the southeast has been essentially untapped in terms of developing biomass facilities. And with millions of tons of trees, Warren Country was selected as the site due to the abundance of biomass materials in the area.

“We are not looking to bring wood in from long distances via train or other mechanisms,” said Russell.

Oglethorpe will use biomass within a 75-mile-radius circle as the “wood basket.” Russell said the fuel supply is abundant and long term for the renewable energy project. And growth continues in the southeast. The Biomass Power Association (BPA), an organization made up of about 80 biomass facilities in 20 states, has found somewhere between 20 to 30 plants proposed in this part of the U.S.

“It is no surprise to us that a lot of activity is occurring in the southeast,” said Cleaves.


Currently, Oglethorpe is still in the planning stages for the facility. The company’s air permit has been submitted to the state and Russell said he hopes to have a draft permit back this summer, with a final air permit around October 2010.

“There is a whole host of environmental review processes that have to happen at the state and local level,” said Cleaves.

With funding through the rural utility service (RUS), Oglethorpe is going through several environmental impact studies with a third party engineer. Plans call for having preliminary information available in the third quarter of 2010. The company will then proceed with public comments and move towards having a record of decision in February 2011.

Russell said the cooperative also maintains an eye on the legislative issues that come along with construction of a new facility such as this project. Arguably the most important is Title V of the Clean Air Act, which requires the facility to keep track of pollution levels and whether pollution control equipment is being operated and maintained properly. Russell said the Oglethorpe plant will use no derivatives and that it will fire the boiler using residuals such as waste wood coming out of saw mills and peanut shells. And the trees the plant will use naturally absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow. With that in mind, CO2 from the biomass used for fuel is being returned to the atmosphere. This in return has no net increase, as long as the trees are replanted.

Along with environmental regulations, new biomass plants have to make sure that incentives at the federal level are aligned and are available. Like many other utilities, Oglethorpe is looking into what type of renewable energy credit the 39 members in their Co-Op will receive after completion of the facility.

Efficiency and Cost of Biomass

Oglethorpe told its members that it wants to support the renewable surge. And with 2,500 MWh of installed biomass capacity already in the U.S., Russell said the fuel works well in the state of Georgia.

But is biomass efficient enough for Oglethorpe and its distributors?

“We feel comfortable that based on discussions we have from working with our own engineers and working with the equipment suppliers that we are going to get a unit that is comparable to other technologies operating in the industry,” said Russell.

And the more efficient the plant operates, the better it is for the environment.

“What we are seeing, particularly among smaller projects, are developers having to address the efficiency simply by virtues of the economics of the project,” said Cleaves.

Biomass is less expensive than other forms of renewable energy as well.

Cleaves said that offshore wind projects cost between 20 and 25 cents per kWh. By contrast, biomass is around half the price and is also available as a base-loaded renewable.

“If you believe renewable energy has a future in this country, then biomass is an incredible bargain for the rate payer,” said Cleaves.

In Warren County, Oglethorpe is still in the process of working with equipment suppliers to make purchases on steam turbine generators and boiler equipment.. The engineering, procurement and construction contract is expected to be in place later this year. With all parts assembled, Oglethorpe is forecasting the total cost of the biomass facility to be around $450 to $500 million, around $4,500 to $5,000/kW.

And if all goes as planned, Oglethorpe will begin operation at the new wood biomass facility in April 2014. 

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