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Cheaper biofuels needed for power plant

Wood chips are the likely source of biomass fuel for the University of Wisconsin’s Charter Street plant, at least until other fuels become more affordable. Wood chips pictured here Nov. 3, 2003, fuel the Wheelabrator plant in Anderson, Calif. AP Photo by Rich Pedroncelli

Left: Switchgrass, like that pictured at the Alliant Energy Co. power plant, May 11, 2006, in Chillicothe, Iowa, could be used as a source of biomass fuel, but it costs more than natural gas. AP Photo by Charlie Neibergall Right: Wood chips are the likely source of biomass fuel for the University of Wisconsin’s Charter Street plant, at least until other fuels become more affordable. Wood chips pictured here Nov. 3, 2003, fuel the Wheelabrator plant in Anderson, Calif. AP Photo by Rich Pedroncelli

Ryan J. Foley
AP Writer

Madison (AP) — Uncertainty about the availability and cost of biomass fuels makes Gov. Jim Doyle’s $251 million plan to overhaul a University of Wisconsin-Madison power plant somewhat risky, according to a report released Tuesday.

Doyle proposed converting the coal-fired Charter Street plant, long a major polluter in the area, to run on cleaner-burning biomass fuels such as wood chips and paper pellets. His administration said it would be one of the nation’s largest biomass projects and the plan has delighted environmentalists.

A report from consultants hired by the state recommended running the plant on a mix of natural gas and biomass and installing a more expensive boiler that can burn any type of biofuel. But the report also warned the state’s biomass market must be expanded for the project to be successful.

The report said the state should get its money back over 25 years from building the more expensive boiler as long as enough biomass fuel supplies are developed and they cost less than natural gas over time.

“The uncertainty of future biomass fuel price and availability presents a significant economic issue,” according to the report by the Titus Group, a national consulting firm, and two law firms.

The report said there was “a significant risk” that not enough biomass supply would be available for the boiler when it is expected to begin running.

Wood products would likely be the main source of fuel for the plant in the beginning while others are developed, the report said. Paper pellets are another cost-effective biomass source, but they are in short supply. Switchgrass and agricultural waste cost more than natural gas.

Andrew Moyer, executive assistant at the Department of Administration, said the state would work over the next three years of construction to identify biomass fuels for the plant and expand the market.

“It’s somewhat of a risk but … we’re building a boiler that could burn a fuel that nobody knows about right now. It’s also the benefit,” he said.

He said the plant could run exclusively on natural gas if biomass supplies are not available. Ultimately, the goal would be to burn 20 percent natural gas and 80 percent biomass.

Moyer said the project should replace the use of 110,000 tons of coal per year with up to 250,000 tons of biomass.

The plant also would add storage space on site as well as a facility somewhere in Dane County to store and process supplies. The report warned that traffic from trains and trucks to the plant would increase to deliver enough biomass.

The consultants also recommended burning natural gas and removing older steam and coal equipment at a Madison plant that powers the Capitol and 11 state office buildings. That project is expected to cost $25 million.

Doyle pledged to eliminate coal at the plants last year after a federal judge ruled the UW-Madison plant had been operating in violation of the Clean Air Act for years. According to information attributed to Doyle in a statement issued Tuesday, the plans should create construction jobs, expand markets for alternative energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Jennifer Feyerherm, an organizer at the Sierra Club, whose lawsuit uncovered the Clean Air violations, said the report shows Wisconsin was prepared to lead the way in promoting biomass.

“The challenges outlined in the report are avenues to creating jobs in Wisconsin and stimulating Wisconsin’s economy,” she said. “It’s less of a gamble and more of an investment in the future because we know the bottom line is we have to stop burning so much coal.”

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