Biomass plant safeguards in place
By Megan Rolland
A million tons of wood will be needed to fuel Gainesville’s proposed 100-megawatt biomass power plant.
Every day, an estimated 130 trucks will deliver 25 tons of wood apiece.
That demand could have huge impacts on the area’s forests and ecology.
A year ago, the Gainesville City Commission selected a company to build a biomass power plant to meet the area’s future energy needs. Commissioner Jack Donovan raised his concerns about the forests then.
"The fear was, what happens if we get into over-foresting or over-harvesting," Donovan said. "We wanted to make sure the harvesting would take place in a way that would be sustainable over time. That we wouldn’t build ourselves a wood-burning plant and then run out of wood."
Studies conducted by both the University of Florida and American Renewables, the company that will build the power plant in Alachua County, indicate there is more than enough wood resources in the area, said Ed Regan, assistant general manager for strategic planning for Gainesville Regional Utilities.
After a year of negotiations with American Renewables – formerly known as Nacogdoches – the city has adopted strict standards regulating wood sources for the plant. The Forest Stewardship plan includes a financial incentive for timber companies using the very best practices in forest harvesting.
"I think that the standards we put into place, that ensure clear cutting will not occur, relieved my concerns," Donovan said.
Biomass – organic material used as fuel, in this case wood – is considered a renewable energy with less harmful emissions than coal or gas. Prices for biomass as fuel are less volatile and aren’t dependent on foreign markets.
A majority of that wood will come from the waste or shavings left over from timber harvesting operations within about a 75-mile radius of the plant. Only fuel coming from the timber industry is regulated by the new standards.
An economic impact study conducted by the Florida Forest Association estimated in 2005 that timber was a $7.26 billion industry in northeastern Florida and a $69.2 million industry in Alachua County.
Regan said that, while fuel type will vary based on the available supply, on average the plant will likely use 50 percent to 60 percent forest waste from timber production.
About 20 percent to 30 percent of the fuel will come from urban forestry practices and yard waste and between 5 percent and 10 percent will come from mill residue such as sawdust at paper manufacturing plants, Regan said.
Companies to collect urban wood and yard waste already exist and will likely expand to fill the increased demand, Regan said. Most of that wood now ends up in landfills at the expense of the deliverer.
American Renewables is a Boston-based company with two biomass power plant projects in Florida and one in Texas. All three plants will be operational before 2014.
Josh Levine, director of project development for American Renewables’ Florida projects, said a similar forest stewardship plan was adopted by Austin Energy for the plant being designed in Nacogdoches County, Texas.
"However, it’s important to note that the Gainesville facility took it one step further than our contract in Austin did," Levine said. "Gainesville requested a Forest Stewardship Incentive payment. There’s a base level of sustainability and guidelines, but if a supplier goes above and beyond, then they would be eligible for an incentive of 50 cents to a dollar per ton."
The incentive is based on third-party certification after objective reviews of best practices.
"There’s really two levels of protection," Regan said. "The minimum standards say we will not use wood not in compliance with the division of forestry regulations. A lot of the mom-and-pop operations that come in here and scalp the earth are not going to be eligible."
A drive down county roads into Gilchrist County reveals piles of timber debris that will likely be burned because it is not economical to remove or reuse the debris, said Tony Wallace, chief operating officer for Natural Resource Planning Services.
Natural Resource Planning is a consulting company with an office in Gainesville that has been hired by American Renewables to analyze the biomass fuel market locally.
Most timber companies in this area plant a variation of pine trees; however, hardwood trees inevitably grow within the pine forests.
"All those hardwoods don’t really have a market except for fuel wood and most of it is just being wasted," Wallace said. "The utilization isn’t what it could be because the demand isn’t what it could be."
Wallace is a certified forester who contracts with various land owners and timber companies, including Loncala Incorporated, which owns approximately 50,000 acres between Ocala and Georgia.
Last week the company was harvesting slash pine in Gilchrist County, leaving behind tall piles of debris that will be sold as fuel wood for the miniature biomass power plants that power many of the area mills.
"Loncala is pretty aggressive, and they try to squeeze out every purpose they can from the resource," Wallace said, adding that other companies just burn the piles.
Aside from providing an incentive for good forestry, Wallace said he is optimistic that the financial boost to the industry will help keep timberland as timberland.
Now the financial temptation of converting land to housing developments is strong and a contributing factor to urban sprawl.
"That property is for sale for development," Wallace said, pointing to a timber farm while returning to Alachua County. "If we got demand for the product, the timber companies would keep it in timber, but now they are not making as much money as they’d like and there is pressure to sell to developers."
Wallace said he has heard positive feedback from the landowners who will be adhering to the GRU standards.
Restrictions in the Forest Stewardship plan include:
Not harvesting materials from any natural forests being converted to timber.
No harvesting from conservation land unless it is forest management thinning.
No stumps that should be left in the ground to increase nutrients in the soil and to prevent erosion.
Forest must be replanted within three years.
Harvesting must adhere to the Florida Endangered Species Protection Act regardless of any state-granted waivers for developments or silviculture.
Rob Brinkman, who heads the local chapter of the Sierra Club, said he is pleased by the standards, especially the agreement that gives GRU the ability to audit the fuel supply.
"I don’t think any of us can really know until any of these hit the ground and we can see how they work," Brinkman said. "The spot unannounced inspections will make them publicly accountable. People will be checking on what is actually being done."