Friday, May 21, 2010

Burning wood to produce electricity may be costly, but small-scale rural applications possible

Avista Corp.’s Kettle Falls, Wash., wood-burning generating station produces enough energy to power 40,000 homes. Instead of being a shining example of the application of biomass energy it has become a key example of the problems with the fuel.

"Located in the timber belt of the Selkirk Mountains, the plant has trouble getting wood fiber at prices that produce affordable electricity," Becky Kramer of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane reports. When the cost climbs too high, the plant shuts down and can be idled for weeks at a time.

"The Western U.S. is biomass rich … but it’s still about fuel. Can you get it in reasonable quantities and affordable costs? That hasn’t been solved yet," David Naccarato of McKinstry Co., a Seattle-based firm that works on biomass projects, told Kramer. Wood-burning power plants offer the attraction of being considered a "carbon-neutral" energy source, because as trees grow they absorb the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning them.
"Rural schools, hospitals and prisons have cut their utility bills by installing wood-burning boilers. The boilers heat buildings with steam," Kramer writes. "They’re particularly effective when they replace high-cost propane or oil furnaces." McKinstry, based in Seattle, has enjoyed success on a smaller-scale than the Avista plant. "You need adequate safeguards so you’re protecting the ecological process," Mike Petersen, the director of the Lands Council of Spokane, told Kramer. "But I think in these rural communities, something on a small scale is possible." (Read more)

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