CA Biomass Plants Fined for Air Violations

A pair of biomass power plants touted for the clean energy they would provide California’s Central Valley will pay some hefty fines for polluting the region’s air, regulators said this week.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District ordered Ampersand Chowchilla Biomass LLC and Merced Power LLC to pay a combined civil penalty of $835,000 to resolve alleged violations of local regulations and the federal Clean Air Act. The EPA said the plants emitted excess amounts of nitrogen oxides and fine particulates.

The plants agreed to pay the fines through settlements that also require installation of devices that enhance control systems for nitrogen oxide emissions and improve air monitoring and reporting of pollutants. The San Juan Valley exceeds national health standards for ozone and particulate matter. Elevated nitrogen oxides are precursors to ozone, according to the EPA.

The EPA ordered the facilities to install controls that reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides by up to 180 tons per year and carbon monoxide by up to 365 tons per year, which they have put in place. Federal and local regulators will now continue to monitor the plants for two years.

“EPA is committed to doing our part to tackle the worst air quality in the nation,” Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, said in a prepared statement this week. “San Joaquin Valley communities can now breathe easier as a result of the significant pollution controls won in these settlements.”

Each 12.5 MW facility generates electricity by burning wood construction waste, agricultural waste and other organic materials. In December, Akeida Capital Management LLC, a New York-based environmental asset management firm, purchased the plants from Global Ampersand of Boston.

The power plants have been operational since 2008. Combined, they provide power to the region through a 15-year power purchase agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Akeida provided the plants with $12.5 million in operating capital in June 2009.

The plants, located about 12 miles apart near the Merced area, were built in the 1980s, but they were inoperable for decades before investors refurbished them in 2007 and 2008.

The recent action was initiated by the EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. It appears to be the EPA’s first major enforcement of regulations on new biomass facilities since the agency announced last month that it would delay for three years the permitting requirements for greenhouse gas-emitting biomass facilities. The EPA plans to work with the industry, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and scientists to research carbon dioxide emissions from biomass plants before establishing permitting those requirements.

The industry is still awaiting the EPA’s ruling on the Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards for boilers, also known as the Clean Air Act Boiler MACT, which could increase the overall capital costs for biomass facilities.

Coal-fired and biomass-fired boilers are major sources of hazardous air pollutions, according to the EPA. Under the MACT, biomass and coal-fired plants might have to install a variety of filters and scrubbers to better control emissions of mercury and particulate matter. Some in the biomass industry – particularly in the Southeast United States, where many biomass projects are underway – fear the costs of installing such equipment might prohibit the development of biomass power plants.

Look for more on utility-scale biomass power projects in the Southeast in an upcoming feature story on RenewableEnergyWorld.com.

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Robert Crowe is a technical writer and reporter based in San Antonio, Texas. He has written for Bloomberg, the Houston Chronicle, Boston Herald, StreetAuthority.com, San Antonio Express-News, Dallas Business Journal, and other publications. He covers renewable energy and sustainability for various publications. As a consultant, he works closely with companies to develop technical materials for renewable energy and sustainability strategies.

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