UW biomass power plant a gamble for state

Posted on January 19, 2010. Filed under: Biomass, Clean Air, Coal |

From an article by Lee Bergquist and Thomas Content in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A state-funded, $250 million project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison aims to convert a coal-fired power plant on campus to one that primarily burns biomass such as tree trimmings and crops, ideally becoming a model for how the state can reduce its carbon output and its dependence on fossil fuels.

But the massive venture – accounting for nearly one-fifth of the state’s capital budget during the 2009-’11 budget period – faces considerable hurdles. Among them:

• Upfront construction costs will be higher than other alternatives that were considered.

• No infrastructure exists to process the eclectic mix of fuels the plant would burn.

• The plant’s surplus electricity will be sold into a regional market already awash in excess power.

The plant, built in the 1950s, is being converted in response to a Sierra Club lawsuit over air pollution, which prompted an agreement by state officials to limit coal use at the facility. In 2008, Gov. Jim Doyle pledged to stop burning coal there altogether. In its place, beginning in 2013 the state plans to rely heavily on biomass, collected from local sources, to generate electricity and steam to heat and cool much of the 42,000-student campus.

But in betting on biomass, officials rejected the two cheapest construction alternatives.

A 2008 consultant’s report concluded that construction costs for either coal or natural gas were roughly half the cost of biomass.

The least-expensive option would have been to continue to burn coal by installing state-of-the-art pollution-control equipment.

Natural gas would have been the next cheapest option. It scored the highest overall when judged on environmental, economic and reliability grounds.

Instead, officials picked a two-fuel strategy of biomass and natural gas, with 60% of the power on an average day expected to come from biomass.

The project’s supporters see biomass as Wisconsin’s most promising source of renewable power. It can be burned continuously, making it more reliable than wind and solar. And because of the economic benefits that will accrue to farmers and other local suppliers, state officials believe biomass power plants can help stimulate the market for homegrown fuels.

“We are not just building a power plant,” said David Helbach, a former utility executive and administrator of the Division of State Facilities. “We are trying to jump-start the biofuels market.”

The project, still in the planning stages, will be funded by taxpayers and with student fees. The Doyle administration’s decision to go with a more expensive technology comes as state government is facing a deficit of more than $2 billion in the next two-year budget starting in mid-2011, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.


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