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Energizing wood power: replacing fossil fuels in a "clean energy" economy.

Three towering smokestacks rise from the fossil fuel-fired Schiller Power Station in the quaint New England city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Built more than 50 years ago, Schiller is a striking example of a dirty, coal-burning power plant constructed during the mid-20th century. An archaic plant exempted from Clean Air Act standards for major sources of pollution and known as one of the "dirty dozen" power plants in New England, Schiller is a facility that environmentalists loathe and traditional energy advocates say our nation cannot live without. Ray Faulkner, who lives a few miles downwind from Schiller, recalls several occasions when his children's toys were blanketed with a film of black coal dust. Now, he says, "I'm fed up."

Coal-based power plants, which constitute more than half of U.S. electricity production, are some of the most nefarious polluters in the country, and Schiller is no exception. But something revolutionary is in the works: Schiller expects by December 2005 to become the first coal-fired power plant in the nation to fully convert one of its boilers to burn a renewable source of fuel known as "woody biomass"--typically wood chips, wood waste and small trees.

Burning woody biomass has not always been considered a clean technology, since it often aggravates air pollution and exacerbates respiratory disease. But a combination of some new processes with wood's natural advantages over coal can turn wood into a low-emissions energy resource. Burning woody biomass instead of coal can reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (the primary cause of acid rain) by more than 95 percent and reduce nitrous oxide (the primary component of smog) by more than 70 percent.

Public Service of New Hampshire, the company that owns and operates Schiller, plans to modify the station by replacing one of its three fossil-fuel boilers with a high efficiency, wood-fired boiler. The plant will get its fuel from locally generated wood chips, sawmill residue and other clean low-grade wood materials and wood byproducts such as tree tops and branches normally left behind in the wood-harvesting process.

"It is a very exciting project," says Gary Long, president of Public Service. "It will create an important new market for New Hampshire's wood industry and the workers and suppliers who depend on that industry for their livelihoods."

While generating enough electricity to power approximately 50,000 homes, the boiler's conversion may spur the reduction of more than 380,000 tons of emissions annually. According to Craig Wright, a clean air official at New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, "These reductions could have notable environmental and public health benefits in the surrounding community."

Some environmentalists are cautiously optimistic Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the company must guarantee that the wood waste is free from toxic contaminants and that the low-grade wood materials are harvested in an environmentally responsible manner. Since errors such as mixing lead paint-coveted shingles or arsenic-treated planks into a load of wood chips can create a hazard worse than coal dust, Greene calls the decision to burn waste wood "a complicated issue."

Public Service's decision to switch to a renewable energy source is influenced by innovative policy decisions made by neighboring states to the south. Massachusetts and Connecticut have both recently passed Renewable Portfolio Standards that require utilities in those states to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable power sources. These new regulations are establishing a market for Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which can be sold to companies that are required to either produce renewable energy themselves or buy paper credits representing the environmental benefits of an energy, project.

Although just buying a credit may sound much less environmentally friendly than building a wind turbine, for example, in Fact the benefits are almost identical: Revenues generated from the credits create the financial incentive fur another utility to build a wind turbine or, in the case of Schiller, to convert a filthy coal boiler into a cleaner biomass boiler.

New England-based energy policies aren't the only political force driving new wood power projects in the U.S. The federal departments of Energy and Agriculture recently awarded $23 million to fund 19 biomass projects with appropriations from the 2002 Farm Bill. Last July, the Department of the Interior joined with Energy and Agriculture to sign a memorandum of understanding on "Woody Biomass Utilization" that establishes consistent policies and procedures to support burning wood for power. In the West, some states that feel vulnerable to forest fires are actually offering to pay power companies to harvest more wood for fuel.

Outdated and sometimes hazardous coal plants currently supply about two percent of the nation's electricity. New technologies, however, offer promising low-emissions solutions that avoid most harmful side effects. Some new furnaces simply burn taster to reduce emissions.

Far-cleaner technologies--including "gasification"--are emerging that can convert either coal or wood into gaseous, liquid or solid fuels before burning. These technologies (which have been touted by the Bush administration as a clean way to produce hydrogen) represent the future of biopower, says Greene. "Over the next 10 to 15 years," he says, "the industry will be dominated by much cleaner gasification technologies."

Perhaps the greatest environmental benefit of wood power is its potential role as a "carbon neutral" energy source. Unlike coal--which is extracted from underneath the Earth's surface and thus releases additional levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere when burned--biomass is part of the Earth's contemporary carbon cycle. When trees are harvested sustainably, their growth absorbs CO2 as fast as their burning can release it. This makes wood power attractive to energy companies such as Public Service that must begin to comply with initiatives in regions like New England that seek to combat global warming.

Although skeptical, neighbors such as Ray Faulkner see Schiller's plan as a positive sign. "Wood," he says, "is certainly cleaner than what we're dealing with now." Wood power is re-emerging as an energy source that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, stimulate local economic growth and increase energy reliability and security. CONTACT: Public Service of New Hampshire, (800) 662-7764,; Natural Resources Defense Council, (212)727-2700,
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Title Annotation:Currents
Author:Kaplan, Heather
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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