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Repowering with Biomass

Waste fuels struggle despite coal’s decline.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2010

hazardous air pollutants from industrial boilers. This rule likely would affect biomass boilers such as the one planned at Plant Mitchell, which could complicate the project.

The utility plans to study other boiler technologies in the event the EPA rule significantly impacts the cost of its boiler conversion plans. A final rule probably won’t be issued until January 2011. “As a result, we are in a holding pattern on the conversion,” Burleson says.

The original estimated capital cost of transitioning the plant to biomass was about $102.8 million. While the company’s estimates remain relatively close to that figure, Burleson says costs might increase somewhat over time. If the project does proceed successfully, however, it would set the stage for other possible coal-to-biomass conversions in Georgia.

Burger Bust

In 2009, FirstEnergy made the decision to convert Units 4 and 5 at its R.E. Burger plant in Shadyside, Ohio, to burn biomass because of the excess costs associated with installing pollution control equipment that would’ve been required to continue burning coal. The two units were generating a combined 312 MW of power, which would have made the planned conversion the largest in the nation to date. But after more than a year of planning and development, FirstEnergy announced in mid-November that it would cancel the repowering project, and would shut down the Burger plant at the end of the year.

The company cited prohibitively low electricity costs as the main reason for its decision. “Despite our best efforts, we were unable to overcome the challenges of the difficult economy to cost-effectively repower the Burger Plant to burn biomass,” stated Gary R. Leidich, executive vice president and president of FirstEnergy Generation.

Despite its cancellation, the project illustrates how such a repowering could work at a similar site.

Initially, the utility planned to use energy crops, such as corn stalks, wheat, or grass grown specifically for the plant. However, more recently the company was leaning toward using wood to fuel the repowered plant. “We have been testing all of these sources,” said Charlie Lasky, FirstEnergy’s vice president of fossil operations, in a conversation that happened a few weeks before the project was canceled. At the time of the interview, the company expected to use a combination of fuels, depending on which ones were most economical at a given time, with wood as its primary fuel, “because of combustion characteristics and emission characteristics.”

One plan was to use 80 percent wood pellets and 20 percent coal-firing. In fact, an EPA consent order specified this mix. “However, our actual objective [was] 100 percent biomass,” Lasky says. “If we need[ed] coal for start-up or stability reasons, we [would’ve had] allowances in the consent order for that.”

Like the Georgia Power and Xcel projects, fuel supply wasn’t the biggest barrier that the Burger repowering faced. “We conducted a supply and demand analysis,” Lasky says. “We plan[ed] to have a diversity of supply with respect to the region, as well as with respect to the products we’d burn.” Nor were technical issues a deal killer for the project. FirstEnergy planned to