MU, Sierra Club at odds on plans to burn wood instead of coal

Thursday, November 18, 2010 | 7:20 p.m. CST; updated 9:43 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 18, 2010
BY Trupti Rami 

COLUMBIA – Is brown the new green?

The Osage Group of the Sierra Club says no.

The environmental group called Wednesday for a general moratorium on burning woody biomass and raised questions about MU’s plans to replace coal with wood in a $62 million boiler at the campus power plant that’s expected to be operational next fall.

The MU Power Plant currently has four boilers that burn coal, tire-derived fuel and biomass and one boiler that burns natural gas, said Karlan Seville, communications manager for campus facilities.

Hank Stelzer, associate professor of forestry at MU, said the new boiler will use a combination of biomass; 80 percent will come from woody biomass and 20 percent will come from other plant material, such as switchgrass and corn cobs.

“We don’t want to have a system that’s not sustainable,” he said.

While the Osage Group supports MU’s move away from burning coal, it does not believe that wood is the best transitional fuel.

Ken Midkiff, conservation chair for the Osage Group, prefers natural gas because it’s clear that gas emits less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than coal, while it is not yet clear how biomass emissions compare. He raised three concerns:

  • The potential release of more carbon dioxide from the burning of woody biomass than is expended from coal burning.
  • The availability of woody biomass.
  • The sustainability of wood harvest.

Midkiff said the key question is whether forests can recover fast enough to make wood burning carbon-neutral.

Stelzer said the entire life of a forest must be considered in this discussion. “The trees will take up as much, if not more carbon over the life of a forest,” said Stelzer, who is collaborating with the power plant.

“We love that they’re replacing a coal boiler,” said Paul Rolfe, president of Coal Free Mizzou. “We want to see more changes like that in the future.”

Rolfe said he’d rather have the issues that come with biomass burning than the issues that come with burning coal.

“Coal is so destructive in its process, from mining to burning to waste,” he said.

About 15 students gathered Thursday afternoon at Carnahan Quadrangle as part of Coal Free Mizzou’s call for MU to move beyond coal and toward clean energy. The event featured speeches from two MU sociology professors: Larry Brown and Rebecca Scott.

“There’s no get out of jail free card when it comes to energy,” said Scott, who has published a book about mountaintop coal removal.

Brown said now is the time to increase the pace of this movement.

“We are beyond coal,” he said at the event.

The power plant’s change to biomass is intended to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, Seville said. She said the MU boiler will be more efficient because of the plant’s use of waste heat in the form of steam for heating and cooling.

The change will reduce the amount of coal that’s being consumed by the power plant, Stelzer said. The $5 million savings can then be applied to buying local biomass.

The power plant purchases its coal from Illinois and other states. Seville outlined two main benefits of the new biomass burning boiler:

  • The biomass boiler will save on fuel costs, as well as lower the plant’s truck emissions, because the biomass would be collected from within a 70- to 75-mile radius of Columbia, as opposed to traveling outside the state for coal.
  • Acquiring the biomass within mid-Missouri would help simulate the local economy.

The new boiler will use 100,000 tons of wood per year, Seville said. The woody biomass will consist of sawmill residue, urban wood waste and harvest residue from commercial timber harvests.

The wood for the biomass will come from forests that are being professionally managed and not clear-cutting operations, Stelzer said.

Stelzer said he hopes in the next five to 10 years for MU to produce some of its own wood for fuel with fast-growing hardwoods such as cottonwoods that are harvested every two to three years in short rotation.

“We need to be a leader that this can be done in a sustainable fashion,” said Stelzer, who said he believes doing so will be easier at the MU plant compared to other wood-burning power plants that are typically three times larger.

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This appeared on ColumbiaMissourian.com on Nov. 18. Here’s a link to the story.

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