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New Hampshire Begins Coal Switch to Biomass

After its official groundbreaking, the Northern Wood Power Project, New Hampshire's first non-hydro, commercial-scale renewable energy project, is now underway at the Schiller Station in Portsmouth.

The US$75 million project, developed by Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), will replace a 50 MW coal-fired boiler with a new boiler of equal size that will burn wood chips and other clean wood products. In addition to creating a market for woodchips from the state's many logging operations, the facility will become a major regional contributor of renewable energy. "New Hampshire will benefit from a dramatic reduction in air emissions, an estimated $20 million boost to the local economy, and a new market for 400,000 tons of wood chips annually to boost the state and region's forest industry," said Gary Long, PSNH president and chief operating officer, at a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the project along the New Hampshire seacoast. Like its coal-fired predecessor before it, the wood-fired boiler will be capable of producing 50 MW of energy, which is enough electricity to power about 50,000 homes. However, it will do so with a much lower rate of emissions. PSNH estimates that the wood-fired boiler will result in a reduction of more than 380,000 tons of emissions annually, while offering a major boost of renewable energy to the local electric grid. While the term 'renewable energy' often evokes visions of high tech solar panels or sleek wind turbines, co-fired biomass plants are an especially effective form of renewable energy. Particularly in a rural state such as New Hampshire that boasts an abundance biomass resources from logging and other wood-related operations. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Biomass Program, when power producers have access to very low cost biomass supplies the choice to use biomass in the fuel mix enhances their competitiveness in the marketplace. This is particularly true in the near term for power companies choosing to co-fire biomass with coal to save fuel costs and earn emissions credits or credits for environmentally-friendly electricity. Power plants are generally only as clean as their feedstock -- the material being burned. New Hampshire's experience with biomass plants has sometimes lead to some friction. According to New Hampshire's Concord Monitor newspaper, during three months in 1995, a facility based in Hopkinton called Bio Energy burned wood from construction and waste debris that released unknown levels of lead into the air. The state's Department of Environmental Services deemed the incident an unintentional oversight and no penalties were levied. The lead issue isn't over, however, as Bio Energy was recently granted permission to burn painted wood and other wood from construction and demolition debris. According to the Concord Monitor article, it could become the largest industrial source of lead in the state, being allowed to emit up to 2.67 tons of lead each year. PSNH's Northern Wood Power Project is likely to steer clear of any such concerns as no demolition material will be burned in the new boiler, according to company spokesman, Martin Murray. "We did not seek, nor were we granted, an air permit which would allow such burning," Murray said. "We expect all of our wood to come from NH, New England logging operations, as well as some clean scrap wood - from construction, for example - or clean pallets." The nearby states of Massachusetts and Connecticut seem to have no doubt the facility will be a clean, renewable energy project, as they have offered important backing. The 50 MW boiler meets the strict efficiency and environmental standards for the renewable energy programs in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Northern Wood Power Project has been certified by both states as a new, renewable energy source, enabling it to produce and sell "Renewable Energy Certificates" (RECs) to suppliers seeking to satisfy renewable energy requirements. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative has made long term REC commitments, thereby adding an important revenue stream for the new facility. There's even a chance federal government policies could help the project. The recently approved federal renewable energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) is not expected to directly benefit the project since the legislation, as it is currently written, applies only to projects that come on-line by the end of January 1, 2006. The PTC now does recognize such a project as an open-loop biomass generator of renewable energy, opening up the chance for the facility to qualify if the legislation's 'on-line' date is modified. "In any event, PSNH used conservative budget numbers in justifying the project from a business and customer perspective," Murray said. "We did not figure any tax credit dollars into the plan. If, in the future, we do receive such a credit it will mean a lower overall cost for the project and a quicker payback for our customers." As of now PSNH does not have any active plans for further renewable energy projects, but Murray said that in the new deregulated atmosphere the utility could further modify existing generation plans. Much as they are doing at the Schiller plant with the Northern Wood Power Project. Other independent companies are also likely to step up to the plate buy constructing their own generation facilities. "Our PSNH role will be to work with such companies so that they can tie-in to our transmission system," Murray said. Construction crews are expected to begin work at the Schiller power plant by the end of the month. It is hoped that the Northern Wood Power Project will be online and generating renewable energy by the summer of 2006.
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