Nobody loves biomass. When talk turns to global warming and the green movement, it’s hardly ever mentioned. Biomass can be garbage (literally) or wood chips or sugar-cane remnants or grass.
Still, among energy experts, biomass has some strong supporters, and for good reason: Right now, virtually all the renewable-energy power in Florida comes from biomass, including three plants in Miami-Dade and Broward.
What’s more, it’s cheap — cheaper in some instances even than coal, which is generally considered the nation’s least expensive way of producing electricity but is also the biggest producer of greenhouse gases that scientists say are heating up the globe.
“We’re very strong supporters of biomass,” says Stephen Smith, head of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “In the short run, it will be a real workhorse.” But he adds: “There are various shades of green in biomass. Some is better than others.”
As policymakers search for alternatives to fossil fuels that threaten to submerge South Florida under the sea, biomass has emerged as a leading possibility, much more plausible than wind in the state, but it comes with strong pluses and minuses.
Big business has gotten involved. Leading biomass producers — including the multimillionaire Fanjul family with an electric plant burning sugar-cane leftovers — have joined the push to require utilities to use more renewables and pay proper rates for them, which would mean the businesses could get decent revenue by expanding operations.
Still, many have concerns. “Not all biomass is created equal,” says Gerald Karnas of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Some environmentalists believe garbage is not as green as, say, wood chips. Others worry that arundo donax, a towering grass proposed by some as a biomass fuel, might spread unintentionally to many areas, including the Everglades, as have other non-native plants.
What’s more, major companies in North Florida that use wood products are concerned that state subsidies for renewable energy could drive up the prices of timber that are used for everything from paper to fat-free ice cream.
Even so, research prepared for the Public Service Commission is showing that biomass and solar are the two top practical renewables in Florida.
“The bottom line is that Florida is well positioned for growth in biomass,” says Sean Stafford, a lobbyist for Florida Crystals, the Fanjul company. He points out that biomass does not have the “volatile price structure” associated with natural gas, the No. 1 energy source of Florida Power & Light.
What follows is a primer on biomass.
Some biomass — sugar-cane waste, wood chips — is generally considered carbon neutral. As cane and trees grow, they soak up carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas. That gas is released when the biomass is burned, meaning they produce energy without contributing to climate change.
Garbage is another story. “In Florida, biomass has a very broad definition, according to the state legislature,” says Karnas. “In some states, power from municipal solid waste wouldn’t be considered a renewable.”
The reason: Experts dispute how carbon neutral garbage is. “It depends what’s in it,” says Smith of the Southern Alliance. “If it’s mostly yard clippings and paper, that could mean very little carbon. If there’s a lot of plastic, that’s made by a fossil fuel, meaning it’s releasing quite a bit of carbon.”
What biomass is not is food. “No one is talking about using food for power,” says John Bonitz of the Southern Alliance. “This is not corn and ethanol.”
A growing number of critics are speaking out against subsidies for ethanol, saying they’ve raised food prices and contributed to food shortages in some parts of the world. “Food into fuel is clearly a dumb idea,” says Lester Lave, an energy expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
In Florida, biomass already produces 1,100 megawatts of power, according a recent study by Navigant Consultants. About half of that comes from 11 waste-to-energy plants that process local garbage and trash.
The other half comes from the leftovers in the timber and sugar-cane industries, which use the power first for their own needs, then sell the remainder to utilities. The biggest plant is run by Florida Crysta1s near South Bay, producing 140 megawatts of power from bagasse, the term for cane waste after the sugar is squeezed out, and from Miami-Dade yard trash.
Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility, reports that in 2007 it purchased 1.5 million megawatt-hours from biomass plants totaling 303 megawatts of capacity — a tiny fraction of the 25 million megawatts that the utility uses.
COSTS CAN BE LOW
Around the nation, biomass plants have a long, well established history. More than half — 53 percent — of all renewables nationwide in 2007 came from biomass, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Biomass advocates point out that this waste produces baseload power — meaning it can fuel plants around the clock — while solar power usually operates about 20 percent to 25 percent of the time.
In Burlington, Vt., the 50-megawatt McNeil power station has been operating successfully since 1984, using mostly leftover branches, leaves and stumps generated by people harvesting firewood or lumber.
Plant manager John Irving says McNeil breaks even at 5.5 cents per kilowatt/hour. (To compare, the typical Florida utility customer pays the utility 10 to 13 cents/kWh.)
The price for McNeil power fluctuates depending on alternative sources. “There were some times when oil/gas was very cheap when I’m sure our owners were thinking maybe we should have done something else,” wrote Irving in an e-mail. But lately, the utility has been getting 10 or 12 cents/kWh, plus a three-cent bonus from Connecticut for providing clean energy. “They’re pretty happy now,” Irving says of the owners.
What’s more, much of the plant’s costs are in labor — harvesting the wood waste and getting it to the plant. “So that’s economic development, compared to sending all your money to the Middle East.”
Meanwhile, Georgia Power proposes changing its 96-megawatt Mitchell Plant from burning coal to biomass. This would not only eliminate a source of the worst emitter of greenhouse gases but would also reduce fuel costs by 30 percent and operating-maintenance costs by 13 percent over the life of the plant, according to spokesman Jeff Wilson.
Most of the wood fuel would come from sources considered unusable by timber companies, Georgia Power says. The switch to biomass is estimated to create 50 to 75 new jobs.
In Florida, Biomass Gas & Electric has deals to build three plants, including a 42-megawatt generator in Tallahassee. BG&E spokesman Keith McDermott says the contract will pay BG&E 7.2 cents/kWh. “Obviously we know we can make the economics work. We’re in the business to make money.”
The Navigant study reported most types of biomass power’s present costs are one-tenth to one-third of solar power’s. Even in 2020, assuming major technical improvements for solar, the study found that in one likely scenario, solar will be a viable power source at about 23 cents/kWh, while much of biomass will be at 0.82 to 12 cents/kWh.
Still, Florida biomass producers complain they’re not getting paid fairly. Florida Crystals and Covanta Energy, which converts garbage to power, say they often get only 6 or 7 cents/kWh from utilities. FPL reports that so far in 2008 it has paid about 4 cents/kWh for electricity produced by biomass resources — about a third of what its customers pay the utility.
These rates are generally based on “avoided cost of electricity,” meaning a wholesale price that a utility says it avoids by buying alternative power.
“The utilities can low-ball us, and there’s nothing that we can do about it,” says Florida Crystals spokesman Gaston Cantens.
FPL spokesman Mayco Villafaña says if the utility paid the biomass producers more, its customers would have to pay more. “In Florida, the rules are written to protect customers by ensuring that utilities don’t overpay for the electricity they buy. Eliminating those rules would allow biomass producers to charge whatever they wanted with no protections for customers.”
“The system isn’t fair,” says Joseph Treshler of Covanta Energy, which runs a waste-to-electricity plant in Hillsborough County. “The Legislature gives the utility full-cost recovery for constructing a renewable plant,” meaning the utility has no risk and gets all the profit. “There is no incentive for them to look outside. They squeeze the independent.”
GARBAGE IN, POWER OUT
With power produced by municipal solid waste, the primary motive of local governments is to get rid of local garbage and trash without creating more landfills.
The problem with burning garbage for electricity is that, well, it’s garbage — meaning it lacks the consistency of a regular fuel. One day’s garbage might be filled with power, the next day’s might be weak.
“It’s not a particularly cheap way of making electricity,” says Lave at Carnegie Mellon.
The Navigant study reports that garbage power and farm waste (think pig manure) can be twice as expensive as some other forms of biomass. One scenario shows the price needed to justify using garbage power in 2009 will be 12.58 cents/kWh, rising to 15.66 in 2020, making it considerably more expensive than natural gas.
Broward has two garbage-to-electricity plants, managed by Wheelebrator Technologies, a division of Waste Management. Most of the nonrecyclable waste from the Keys ends up at one of them. Operating since 1991, the plants produce 134 megawatts of power, enough to serve 75,000 homes, save 2.8 million barrels of oil and get rid of up to 4,500 tons of waste a day that would otherwise fill up dumps.
In the Doral area of Miami-Dade, the Resource Recovery Facility processes 4,200 tons a day, producing 77 megawatts of power that serve about 50,000 homes.
The Dade plant also converts 400,000 tons annually of yard trash into a carbon-free mulch. The facility then pays to ship most of that to plants like Florida Crystals’, because the Dade generators are at capacity just with garbage.
Plant manager Hank Clements says the Miami Dade plant gets 3 to 8 cents/kWh, which cuts the county’s garbage disposal costs by $27 million a year. He says the plant has high-tech emission controls that scrub many of the pollutants out before they get into the air.
Still, environmentalists have concerns. The Southern Alliance says plastics and paper are too often burned for power when they should be recycled. Plastics and metals can lead to pollution, and he’s not certain about the quality of emission controls at garbage plants, says Smith.
Even so, Smith says his clean-air group has “made a calculated decision to go neutral” on garbage-energy, because environmental groups are allied with waste companies like Covanta in pressing the state to adopt a requirement that a certain percentage of power come from renewables.
“We have much more in common than we have differences,” says Karnas. Burning garbage is “better than burning a pound of coal.”
Since biomass tends to be bulky, location is an issue. “The rule of thumb is that if the distance is greater than 50 to 60 miles, then transportation cost becomes prohibitive,” says Jarek Nowak of the Florida Division of Forestry.
That’s why biomass plants tend to be smallish — ranging from under a megawatt to 50 or so. Compare that with FPL’s oil and gas generators at Port Everglades, which total 1,200 megawatts.
Most wood-waste energy in Florida comes from forests in the north. One company there is Buckeye Technologies, which produces wood fiber used in such things as hot dogs and cosmetics. It uses the power of its 40MW plant to handle their own manufacturing needs, then sells what’s left to the grid.
“We use every bit of the waste material for power,” says Michele Curtis, Buckeye’s wood supply manager. “The limbs and branches, the sawdust.”
Buckeye and other timber users worry that a state renewable energy requirement might provide such high subsidies for burning wood that, like corn and ethanol, it could drive up costs of all wood products.
“It’s not a level playing field when government puts incentives out there,” says Curtis. “We are a believer . . . in green energy,” but to keep timber prices steady, it wants limits set on the amount of wood used for energy.
IS GRASS ALWAYS GREENER?
Some companies say the best way to biomass is to grow nonfood crops, such as switchgrass or arundo donax, a large grass that can easily grow 30 feet high in Florida’s warm climate.
For the past two years, Progress Energy has been talking to companies that want to fuel a plant by growing arundo donax on up to 20,000 acres somewhere in Central Florida. The talks haven’t gone far. One reason: Many environmentalists don’t like arundo donax.
Shirley Denton, past president of the Florida Native Plant Society, said her group is “definitely not comfortable” with the grass, which has “been demonstrated to be a highly invasive species” in other places, including California. She fears the grass in Florida could become another dominating non-native plant, like melaleuca, which has overrun wide areas.
In December, Innovative Energy Group of Florida, a subsidiary of a Dubai company, said it had encountered “significant challenges” of finding land in Florida for arundo donax, according to a story on Greenwire.
Biomass Gas & Electric, which has plans for three plants in Florida that would use arundo donax, says it has received a permit for the grass from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, “but there have been requests for a hearing,” says BG&E spokesman McDermott.
FPL, which is building three solar generators, has reservations about the grasses. “If by ‘biomass,’ you mean generation produced from an energy crop such as switchgrass,” says Villafaña, “then we are concerned about the significant impact and pressure on land and animal habitat, both locally and elsewhere, and the environmental impact from incremental emissions of . . . contaminants that are produced by the entire biomass production/process cycle. . . .
“While clearly a renewable resource, we do not view this form of biomass as a clean resource, since the net impact on the environment is negative as compared to alternative forms of energy such as solar, nuclear and wind,” Villafaña wrote in an e-mail.
Bonitz of the Southern Alliance’s response: “FPL’s attitude toward biomass is sad, because data show that Florida has plentiful renewable biomass resources that can help replace coal, petroleum, and natural gas for electricity. We do not need to wait on ‘energy-crops’ to begin freeing ourselves from our addiction to fossil fuels.”
THE POTENTIAL: HUGE OR LIMITED?
The Navigant report estimates that biomass in Florida has the potential to produce somewhere between 6,000 and 15,550 megawatts more than exist now. That’s the equivalent of three to seven times the amount of electricity of the two nuclear units FPL is planning.
One potential source: At least 15 million acres of forest in Florida — the vast majority of that in the northern part of the state. But not all of that should be used for biomass, say experts, because it could jack up timber prices.
For garbage, the Navigant report says only 11 percent of Florida’s municipal waste is now turned into energy. If it all was, it could add up to another 4,000 megawatts of power — the equivalent of four nuclear generators.
Navigant dismisses another biomass possibility — animal waste. Poultry litter and horse manure can add up to 880 million to 1.6 billion pounds annually, but it’s low-energy that could produce perhaps 90 megawatts — at a far higher cost than other biomass.
The study commissioned by the PSC doesn’t offer much hope for more plants like Florida Crystals’, concluding that “crop residues represent a modest resource in Florida, especially compared to other states with large cereal crops,” such as Iowa.
Navigant estimates Florida crop residue could produce no more than 800 megawatts. Florida Crystals believes that figure is unfairly low.
Regardless of the numbers, biomass supporters vow to push on, “We’re part of the low-hanging fruit,” says Treshler of Covanta. “It’s cheap power, and our waste is indigenous.”