Biomass Plants Polluting like Coal Plants?


“Just 12 miles apart in the belly of California, a pair of 12.5 megawatt power plants fouled the air with a toxic brew of pollutants — nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and particulate matter. They released thick plumes and visible dust. They failed to install proper monitoring equipment, and failed to file reports on their emissions.

Another instance of coal plants polluting the environment?

Not quite. These are biomass power plants, part of the so-called green wave of the future.”

The article is a bit confused – they talk about fines for violations in February, yet point to a victory for the industry following the EPA announcement that it will delay GHG regulations.  These are two different things.  If anything, the lifecycle analysis of biomass based power would probably benefit from GHG accounting (which is probably what the EPA will try to figure out in the next few years).  Combustion plants, regardless of the energy source will continue to be regulated for NOx, SOx, CO & PM emissions among others (for local air pollution), as was the original intention of the Clean Air Act.  The EPA’s attempt to regulate GHG emissions is a totally separate endeavor and is intended to address climate change.  For information on this program, you can check it out here.  Obviously, biomass based combustion is a tiny percentage of our GHG emissions and it makes sense that the EPA is trying to regulate the large emitters first.  This whole discussion may be pointless if various bills in congress pass that will remove the EPA’s authority to regulate GHG (essentially giving everyone a free pass until at some point in the future, we decide that climate change is something we might want to address)

I like their point in the end:

“The emissions were over the limit, and as soon as they are over the limit that means they are having an impact, definitely, on the communities around them,” said Subra. “They are using wood as opposed to coal, yet the emissions from these facilities are comparable to emissions to plants that would use coal or natural gas. They’re not doing their due diligence unless the agencies lean on them.”

Industry will be industry I guess.  However, we should understand that almost anything is better than coal, and certainly a process that fixes the CO2 that is then burned rather than introducing previously sequestered CO2…

UPDATE 4/27/11:

Here are some updates that include a link to a waste to energy facility that puts its emissions numbers on its website (so they aren’t all spewing pollutants and violating limits):

So the first update is on a bill to include waste to energy on a higher tier for credits:

“The question is, should we put as high a priority on waste incineration as we do on solar and wind energy? The answer is not just no, it’s hell, no,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who has urged the administration to reject the bill. “This will result in a windfall for existing waste-to-energy plants. It’s unjustified, and it’s a lousy policy.”

However, it seems Maryland has some conflicting policies:

“Paul Gilman, who is responsible for Covanta’s environmental compliance program, pointed to the 2009 study, which found that waste-to-energy plants produce electricity more cleanly and efficiently than landfill gas-to-energy, which is classified as a top-tier renewable credit in Maryland.”

Wow, things get confusing fast, especially in an area like bioenergy where policy is moving just as fast as technology and accounting methods.

The second article validates my point that the EPA is trying to determine the LCA of biomass to energy in order to include it in GHG accounting.  This is another example where we still aren’t even sure what the balance sheet is for certain technologies:

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3 Responses to Biomass Plants Polluting like Coal Plants?

  1. Pingback: Obama administration backs away from ozone regulations | Energy and the Future

  2. Paul says:

    Here is an update on these trash burning incinerators- sounds like they may be worse after all:

  3. Pingback: For renewables but against biomass? Sounds fishy to me… | Energy and the Future

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