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Wood making comeback as power source

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY

One of the world’s oldest energy sources is making a comeback.
Across the USA, power plants are turning to wood to make electricity. The move is spurred by state mandates to encourage renewable power and by bills moving through Congress that require more renewable electricity nationwide.

Wood power’s rise is "meteoric," says William Perritt, editor of Wood Biomass Market Report. One wood-burning plant started up in 2007, seven in 2008 and a dozen in 2009, he says.

Dozens more are on the drawing board. That includes three 100-megawatt plants, scheduled to start in 2012 that together would crank out enough juice to power up to 270,000 homes.

In 2008, wood-burning power plants were capable of generating roughly 6,700 megawatts or enough to provide power to about 6 million homes, according to the Energy Department. That includes, however, plants that supply power to wood-products factories that use waste wood to generate electricity.

Many plants now burn bark, twigs and other waste wood. If wood power grows as expected, whole trees will have to be cut down to fuel the plants, says Pete Stewart of Forest2Market, a forest-industry analysis firm.

Plants have promised to use waste wood, but "as soon as they get their permit and see how much it’s going to cost to do that, they change their tune," he says. Stewart says it is generally more expensive to build a wood-burning plant than one powered by coal or natural gas.

Some environmentalists fear that the rise of wood power could devastate forests.

As the industry expands, "it’s going to move quickly from waste wood to wood chips," says Scot Quaranda of the Dogwood Alliance, a forest-protection group. That would lead to "more large-scale clear-cutting, more conversion of natural forest to plantations and more endangered forests being logged," he says.

Bob Cleaves of the Biomass Power Association, an industry group, says that current laws and policies are sufficient to protect the environment.

Examples of the growth of this back-to-the-future fuel:

• A Tacoma, Wash., plant that opened in August burns leftovers from a neighboring paper mill. The power plant "takes advantage of a resource … that’s being created anyway," says Paul Copleman of Iberdrola Renewables, which oversees delivery of the power to Sacramento.

• An Alexandria, N.H., plant reopened in January after being idle for 14 years. It sends its power throughout New England.

• A plant in Kenansville, N.C., was converted from burning coal to burning wood. It reopened in 2009 and sells its power to one of the state’s largest utilities.

• A Snowflake, Ariz., plant burns dead trees from a nearby national forest to make power. "There are a lot of forests that need to be trimmed to protect them from wildfire," says plant manager Garry Stevens, and it "makes sense" to burn the trees weeded out.

Wood is especially attractive as a renewable fuel in the South, says Cleaves. Southern states lack ample sun or wind power, but they have broad stretches of forest and many paper and timber mills that generate waste wood.

Another plus: wood-burning boilers can churn out a steady supply of electricity. Solar power is only made when the sun shines, and windmills turn only when the wind blows.