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Discarded yard trimmings and farmers' fastgrowing cottonwood trees are taken to Wheelabrator Ridge Generating Station. The biomass plant turns the organic waste into a small amount of electricity, which is sold to Florida Power Corp.

Green With Biomass

Published: Sep 2, 2002

TAMPA - Next time you do yard work, you also could be helping keep your lights on.

Dead branches and palm fronds from around the Tampa Bay area are being ground up and used in some power plants to produce electricity.

The environmentally friendly fuel is called biomass.

``It's one of those things that solves a lot of problems and creates a lot of benefits,'' says Scott Sklar, president of The Stella Group, a Washington, D.C., clean energy marketing and policy firm.

The organic waste, perhaps leftovers from farming or landscaping, becomes power instead of debris in a landfill.

It is more expensive, however, than such traditional fuels as coal or natural gas.

Some utilities - including Tampa Electric Co. - are experimenting with burning biomass in coal-fired power plants and therefore lessening pollution.

Some factories use it to create heat, especially in the paper and lumber industries. A few companies have wholesale power plants dedicated to biomass, including one in Auburndale that sells its electricity to Florida Power Corp.

Some farmers grow ``energy crops,'' plants such as eucalyptus trees or switchgrass produced specifically to make electricity.

``What we're seeing here is the greenest of all green [power],'' says Steve Segrest, director of the Common Purpose Institute, a nonprofit environmental group that grows energy crops on a Central Florida plantation, one of the largest in the country.

Untapped Potential Biomass grew in popularity in the 1980s, though growth has remained flat for the past decade. It is the second most- popular renewable energy, after hydroelectric power.

There are no tax breaks for companies who use biomass. But that could change as Congress considers a tax credit this year of 1 cent per kilowatt hour, which could help utilities break even. Some utilities are experimenting now, preparing for that day.

Others predict federal regulators eventually will require them to use renewable or ``green power'' to produce a small portion of their electricity.

Experts say biomass one day could provide 15 percent to 20 percent of the United State's electricity needs - but right now it is about 1 percent.

Florida is one of the top states for in use of biomass for power.

``It's a way of turning something we would throw away into a usable energy source,'' says Dave Parker, an analyst with the Tampa office of Robert W. Baird & Co., an investment firm. ``They don't provide thousands of megawatts, but they're all little ways to increase load growth.

On The Leading Edge

When a utility burns biomass in its power plants, it's called ``cofiring'' because the material is mixed with the regular fuel. About 15 utilities in the United States have tried it, including Tampa Electric. Within three years, experts predict, as many as 50 utilities will be using biomass.

Tampa Electric has burned a small amount of biomass in its Gannon Station and Polk Power Station plants, both fueled by coal. In experiments, mixing 5 percent biomass with 95 percent coal slightly reduced pollution from those plants, says Joe Cascio, Tampa Electric's project manager of energy applications.

``It isn't significant, but just about all programs start small,'' Cascio says. ``We think it's important to start something. It's good for the country and it's good for our environment.''

The utility's green power project, called Smart Source, started in 2000. In 2001, Tampa Electric burned 1,000 tons of biomass, and expects to burn about 800 tons this year, most of it collected at curbside in Hillsborough County.

If more customers sign up to pay for Smart Source ``green power,'' the utility will burn more biomass.

Southern Co., based in Atlanta, also has a three-year biomass experiment in an effort to reduce pollution that has shown results. It burns switchgrass in coal plants and has contracted with farmers to who grow switchgrass for the program.

``When you compare it with the cost of fossil [fuels] it's still a bit costly,'' says Doug Boylan, research engineer for the Southern Co. ``But we thought we'd like to know more about it.''

Growing Fuel

Common Purpose Institute, a nonprofit environmental group, also is learning about biomass. The group planted eucalyptus and cottonwood trees on about 140 acres of abandoned phosphate mine near Auburndale, in Polk County.

It harvests the crop under the direction of the University of Florida researchers and gives some to Tampa Electric and some to Wheelabrator Ridge Generating Station, a nearby biomass plant.

Wheelabrator turns wood waste and discarded tires into a small amount of electricity which is sold to Florida Power Corp. under a 30-year contract. The tires, not considered biomass, make up about 10 percent of the plant's fuel.

The wholesale plant collects tree limbs, manufacturing pallets and construction debris such as trusses and doors. The companies pay the plant a few dollars per ton less than they would pay to dump at a landfill. If the biomass is already ground up, they can leave it at the plant for free.

The 7-year-old, $72 million plant has not been as profitable as hoped, says John Rivara, plant manager. The equipment wears faster and needs more maintenance than expected. Wheelabrator has no plans for expansion; it already is one of the larger biomass plants in the nation.

Green, But Expensive

Biomass can't compete with natural gas or coal because of cost.

``There has to be a tradeoff,'' says Richard Bain, group manager at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo. ``From a utility perspective, they need a very low-cost [fuel]. Farmers need a reasonably high cost, so that they can have an incentive to do it. They're not going to do it if they can't make more money than planting a traditional row crop.''

For biomass to become more popular, those prices have to be more in line.

``The gap is reducing,'' says Aziz Shiralipour, associate director of the Center of Natural Resources/Biomass Programs at the University of Florida. ``When we get there, biomass is going to be a big help to supply energy to the nation.''

Biomass is a less-concentrated fuel than coal because it contains more moisture, so it takes nearly twice as much biomass to get the same amount of energy as coal.

``You learn why, when the world discovered coal, they went to coal instead of wood,'' says Evan Hughes, manager of biomass energy for the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. ``But now we have other concerns that led us back in the other direction.''

The big draw of biomass is its benefit to the environment.

``That's big money,'' says Sklar, with The Stella Group. ``If you can't get rid of it with something like [power plants], what do you do with it? Our nation's landfills are filling up.''

Transportation and handling of biomass are issues because it is messier to deal with than coal. It doesn't pay to transport it more than 50 miles.

But it is cheaper than most other renewable forms of energy.

``There's a lot of potential for biomass,'' says Fred Mayes, chief of the renewable energy team for the Energy Information Administration. ``There's plenty of trees out there, and there's plenty of waste, so there is potential to do more.''

Reporter Cherie Jacobs can be reached at (813) 259- 7668.

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