Woody biomass can be tricky. Among the forms of renewable energy, it offers an especially tangled web of benefits and costs. But there’s no doubting that compared to coal, it’s a winner—and it was that hard fact that prompted celebrations last week at the Savannah River Site (SRS), where a big new biomass power plant began operating.

SRS is a 310-square-mile U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) property about 20 miles south of Augusta, Ga., on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. It has been to home to a wide range of nuclear activities since the early 1950s, when President Harry Truman sent a letter to DuPont, requesting the company make an “Atomic Plant,” as Truman called it. Farms and towns were gobbled up, reactors were built and a lot of nuclear material was processed and refined.

savannah river site biomass plant, ameresco
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These days, the reactors are shut down, but a lot of work is going on at SRS dealing with nuclear material leftover from the Cold War era, among other things. This work takes power, and most of that power had been coming from “a deteriorating and inefficient 1950s-era coal powerhouse and oil-fired boilers,” according to Ameresco, which built the new biomass plant.

Ameresco said the new plant will burn “local forest residue and wood chips, and bio-derived fuels” and crank out 20 megawatts of “clean power,” providing 30 percent of the energy needed to run SRS. The company said the SRS Biomass Cogeneration Facility “will generate an estimated $944 million in savings in energy, operation and maintenance costs” over the life of a 20-year contract.

The plant was built using a federal financing device called an energy savings performance contract (ESPC), under which private companies finance, install and maintain new energy- and water-efficient equipment at federal facilities. The government pays no up-front costs and the company’s investment is repaid over time by the agency from the cost savings generated by the new equipment. The Obama administration has been pushing these as a way to advance clean (or cleaner) energy technologies, and as job producers.

In addition to cost savings, Ameresco said the SRS biomass plant will provide area residents “health and environmental benefits tied to air emission reductions, including avoiding 100,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.”

For sure, the plant is an improvement—and indicative of a trend in the Southern United States. Biomass is big there, and looking to get bigger. The industry’s expansion plans recently prompted the Southern Environmental Law Center to undertake a comprehensive, life-cycle study of 17 existing and 22 proposed biomass facilities in seven states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia—to try to get a better handle on the climate-change implications.

The findings highlight the trade-offs that can come with biomass.

savannah river site biomass plant,ameresco
image via Shutterstock

The report found that “in the long run, burning wood instead of fossil fuels to make electricity can reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” Hooray! But, maybe not. The report also found this: “Based on current trends in using wood for large-scale power plants and exporting fuel pellets to Europe, biomass energy in the Southeast is projected to produce higher levels of atmospheric carbon for 35 to 50 years compared to fossil fuels.”

In addition, the study found, “How biomass is obtained, burned, and regrown determines its carbon footprint and impact on forest health.” That’s why the center is advocating for federal regulators to require what it calls “forest-to-furnace accounting of the biomass carbon cycle” to ensure woody biomass doesn’t hasten climate change.

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