Illustration by Susie Bijan.

Although it is officially called the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC), protesters are calling the county’s planned biomass facility an “incinerator in disguise.”

American Renewables, a private biomass developer based in Massachusetts, is partnering with Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) to construct a biomass power plant at GRU’s Deerhaven Station, just eight miles northwest of Downtown Gainesville.

GRU and city officials agreed that Gainesville needs an additional source of energy to meet the demands of its consumers by 2023. The 100-megawatt facility, capable of providing enough electricity to power 100,000 homes, will be primarily fueled by residual wood chips collected from forest and wood processing operations within a 75-mile radius.

According to Josh Levine, the project manager of American Renewables, biomass uses the leftover wood from trees that are initially harvested by logging companies, which mainly use the trunk of the tree, discarding the treetops and branches.

“In most cases, this wood is piled up and burned,” Levine said. “There are no emissions controls, no benefits from the burning of that material — just burned.”

The biomass plant was chosen as an alternative to a 220-MW coal facility that GRU had originally planned to build as an extension of their existing 250-MW coal facility at the Deerhaven site. Twenty-eight options were considered, including wind and solar energy.

Levine said biomass out-shined the competition because it’s the most cost-effective renewable energy on the market. Solar power and wind power are intermittent resources and wouldn’t provide adequate base-load generation, he claimed.

The Contract

In May 2009, GRU entered a 30-year contract with American Renewables. The biomass facility will be owned by American Renewables, but GRU will purchase its power for at least 30 years.

Many “trade-secret” components of the Power Purchase Agreement between GRU and American Renewables had been unavailable to the public. Opponents expressed concern about American Renewables’ intentions in concealing financial data.

Levine said American Renewables’ intentions were not to conceal information from Gainesville residents, but to protect the company’s trade secrets from potential competitors. On April 6, American Renewables fully exposed the contract. Levine said their decision had nothing to do with public pressure.

“The contract is almost three years old, so it’s dated,” he said. “The competitive landscape has completely shifted, which is why we’re more comfortable releasing the contract.”

Levine explained that between 2008 and 2009, Floridians were hyped up on talk of a more sustainable future. Florida was leaning toward signing a Renewable Portfolio Standard, a regulation requiring increased renewable energy production and usage. With this anticipation, American Renewables expected more biomass plants, owned by competitor companies, to sprout up all over the state. Since then, the surge of enthusiasm failed to generate the results Levine expected. Thus, competition fizzled out.

Job Creation

During the facility’s three-year construction phase, which began in late March, 350 temporary jobs will be created. Half of these construction jobs will employ local workers, while the other half will call for specialists, who may or may not be local.

The facility’s operation, which American Renewables foresees to extend beyond 40 years, will directly employ 45 people. Indirectly, GREC will provide an additional 160 jobs to the forestry, logging, and trucking businesses within the 75 mile radius, which encompasses 23 counties.

Director of Florida State University’s Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis, Dr. Julie Harrington, conducted a detailed economic benefit analysis for the biomass plant. She estimates an additional 500 jobs will also be infused into the local economy once the plant is running.

Protecting Forests

The majority of Florida’s forests are privately owned, with many used as timberland. Periodic forest thinning is considered to be a good forestry practice, removing invasive species of trees that compete with native species for sunlight and nutrients. Thinning is currently uncommon because landowners do not have a market for their unwanted trees, making the practice economically disadvantageous.

The biomass facility would provide an incentive for forest thinning through GRU’s Stewardship Incentive Program, allowing landowners to sell wood chips from invasive, unhealthy or otherwise undesirable trees.

Joy Towles Ezell, who has been a tree farmer her whole life, expressed concern that the biomass facility may have adverse effects on the health of surrounding forests.

“They’re going to have to clearcut forests,” Ezell said. “There’s not going to be enough waste wood to run these things.”

At one point in her tree farming career, Ezell grew trees for a paper mill, but later terminated the contract because she did not consider their practices sustainable. Ezell worries the biomass facility will compete with paper mills for residual wood. Despite Levine’s claim that paper mills cut down trees and only process their trunks, burning everything else, Ezell contends that tree mills often process entire trees — leaving little to no residual matter behind.

American Renewables states that 1.2 million green tons will be used to fuel their facility annually. Eighty percent of the required tonnage will be derived from forest products, while the remaining 20 percent will be drawn from urban wood waste.

Gainesville’s Ad-hoc Forestry Committee, an advisory board of local experts, has developed a set of sustainability standards for the biomass plant’s procurement of residual wood. To ensure that these standards are upheld, American Renewables plans to trace the origins of all the wood they receive by collecting random samples.

The samples will be tested for moisture content and other indicators that may determine whether the biomass being burned was harvested from the trunks of healthy trees, which would indicate unsustainable harvesting. American Renewables also plans to employ two on-site inspectors who will monitor wood collection.

Ezell and other biomass opponents doubt the enforcement of these standards. Although American Renewables’ Fuel Procurement Standards assure that “GREC shall not utilize biomass fuel harvested during the conversion of a natural forest to a plantation forest,” Ezell worries that the biomass facility will quickly turn to clear cutting in order to meet their biomass supply needs.

Pollution

According to a study conducted by Dr. Mary Booth for the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, biomass facilities release more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than even coal facilities.

Booth, an ecologist from Massachusetts, has been fighting biomass for three years. The Manomet study found that, generally, biomass facilities emit 50 percent more carbon emissions than their coal-fueled cousins.

However, Gainesville’s biomass plant is designed to operate at a higher efficiency than most. Booth estimates that this one will emit 30 percent more carbon emissions than a coal facility generating the same amount of electricity.

Levine acknowledges that burning biomass, in the short term, releases more carbon dioxide than burning coal. Nonetheless, he asserts that from a life cycle perspective, biomass plants are actually carbon negative (yes, you heard him right).

“Our facility will result in cleaner air for the region,” Levine said.

His argument is based on the notion that biomass plants are capable of offsetting emissions that would have otherwise gone back into the atmosphere due to wood decomposition. When wood decomposes, it releases both carbon dioxide and methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas.

Booth resolutely dismissed Levine’s argument, claiming that the environmental impacts of wood decomposition are negligible compared to the actual burning of biomass. She explained that the release of methane through decomposition is minimized by methane-consuming bacteria in the soil. Furthermore, wood takes years to decompose. Burning biomass would release high amounts of carbon dioxide immediately.

In addition to carbon dioxide, biomass emissions include dioxin, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, chlorine, heavy metals and particulate matter.

Health

Dr. Christopher Teaf, a toxicologist who testified on behalf of American Renewables, conducted a toxicology and human health risk assessment and concluded that the biomass facility would not pose any health risks to the environment.

“Our facility, from an air pollution standpoint, will not contribute to adverse health effects for anybody living near the facility,” Levine said.

Nonetheless, several organizations across America, including the Florida Medical Association, the American Lung Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility and North Carolina Family Practitioners are deeply concerned about the air pollution associated with biomass energy.

In 2008, the Florida Medical Association (FMA) issued a resolution strongly urging the state government to minimize their approval of biomass plants.

Dr. Ronald Saff, an allergy and asthma specialist living in Tallahassee, is a member of FMA’s Council on Public Health. In 2009, he played a key role in halting the construction of a permitted biomass plant in Tallahassee.

Saff contacted the Alachua County Medical Society (ACMS) to voice his concerns about biomass pollution in hope that local experts will join the fight against biomass.

“I am very disappointed with my physician colleagues in Alachua County for not speaking out about the dangers of biomass plants,” said Saff, who feels ACMS has been negligent in their duty to protect residents from this “great polluter.”

The Rush

GRU recognizes that Alachua County is not in need of a new energy supply until 2023, at the earliest. Biomass opponents want to encourage local residents to further distance that date by improving energy conservation practices.

American Renewables’ hasty progression with the biomass plant draws curiosity and speculation among their opponents.

The biomass facility calls for a capital investment of about $450 million, which will be fronted by American Renewables. If companies like American Renewables act quickly enough, they are eligible to have one third of their investment reimbursed through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (otherwise known as the Stimulus Bill). In order to to be eligible, American Renewables must complete the facility’s construction by the end of 2013.

Pick Your Poison

When it comes to biomass, many elected officials like to play the “pick your poison” game.

Karen Orr, Chairwoman of Energy Justice Network, a national grassroots energy agenda, asserts that biomass advocates try to set up a situation in which biomass, coal and nuclear power plants are the only energy options.

“The false dichotomy presented by government and corporations is one that must be exposed for what it is and strongly rejected if we plan to continue in the world,” Orr said. “We advocate a complete phase-out of nuclear power, fossil fuels, large hydroelectric dams and ‘biomass’ incineration within the next 20 years. What is holding us back is only a lack of political will.”

Research published in Scientific American proves that 100 percent of the world’s energy needs can be met with wind, water and solar power as early as 2030. Opponents of American Renewables are hoping Gainesville can resist the temptation of biomass long enough for cleaner sources of energy to become economically feasible and politically attainable.