Big Florida Biomass Plant Gains Backing

A proposal to build a 100-megawatt wood-burning biomass plant in Gainesville, Fla., looks like it might finally become a reality after Gov. Charlie Christ and a panel of his cabinet backed the deal and a judge recommended approval of air permits for the project.

American Renewables, the company hoping to build the plant, and Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) said in a press release that “the air construction permit is expected to be finalized by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in the next few weeks.” Currently, GRU produces about two-thirds of its electricity by burning coal, and what the companies have dubbed the “Gainesville Renewable Energy Center” is seen as a way to cut into that total.

Proposed woody biomass plant, Gainesville, Florida, American Renewables

image via American Renewables

American Renewables said the plant will burn through about one million tons of wood every year, all of which it hopes to source from within 75 miles of the site. The company says  “a comprehensive fuel study by an independent forestry consultant has confirmed that fuel resources within this radius are more than adequate to fuel the project.”

But while the project is sold as a source of renewable energy, not everyone is so keen on woody biomass. According to the Gainesville Sun, critics have cited a Massachusetts study that noted that burning wood to produce electricity results in a “carbon debt,” releasing more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than burning coal. However, the study’s authors have pointed out that “because trees can grow back, this debt can be paid off and a carbon dividend can be achieved as GHG levels are reduced to levels lower than they would have been had only fossil fuels been burned.”

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.