Thursday September 9, 2010

POWNAL -- The developer of a proposed biomass facility spoke to the Banner Wednesday about the project, providing more detail on emissions the project will likely produce as well as other impacts.

"This plant will have by far the most sophisticated pollution control equipment of any wood fired power plant in New England," said Thomas Emero, managing director of development and operations for Beaver Wood Energy, LLC. "It will meet and exceed all of the state’s standards for air emissions."

The proposed project is a 29-megawatt biomass/wood pellet manufacturing facility. Emero’s company has entered into a lease agreement with the owners of the former Green Mountain Race Track property on Route 7, but has yet to file a permit application with the state for a certificate of public good.

Many residents have expressed concerns over the project, ranging from truck traffic to air pollution.

"Smoke implies, to me, an incomplete burn where you smell the burning of wood like you would with a wood stove that wasn’t running that well. You don’t smell smoke from a biomass power plant," Emero said.

"The entire combustion process is monitored similarly to the combustion in your car," he said, adding that a computerized system controls the amount of airflow into the burner, which makes sure the fuel inside is burned completely and puts out less material. "The primary pollution control is proper and complete combustion."

He said the size of the emissions stack has not been determined.


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Depending on the results of an air modeling study, the stack will be between 180 and 210 feet high. The study, which takes into account wind conditions and land topography, is 90 percent complete, Emero said.

The stack, he said, will emit nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and particulate, the basic byproducts of burning wood.

Steve Snook, an environmental engineer for the Department of Natural Resources Air Pollution Control Division, said Beaver Wood has not submitted an application for its project, and therefore he could only speak in general terms about biomass plants.

Snook said particulate matter is made up of carbon char, unburned pieces of wood, and inorganic material such as dirt that if small enough can go through the airstream. He said what a biomass plant emits is different that what is emitted by a wood stove, which doesn’t completely burn its fuel.

In addition to the complete burn process, pollution control devices exists to cut down on what is released into the air. What comes out of the stack is also monitored, Snook said. Quarterly reports are made to the state on what is emitted, and an annual site visit is conducted. Snook said it’s not uncommon for the air division to receive calls from citizens who notice something they think is awry with a plant’s emissions.

Snook said there are biomass plants in Rygate and Burlington which have been in operation for years that have had upgrades to their emissions systems. He said on most days, nothing can be seen coming out of the stacks except for maybe a gray haze. On cold days, a white plume of water vapor is visible.

Tailored to each project

He said emissions standards are tailored to each project and the limits reflect the results of air quality studies plus other emission sources.

Emero, an environmental lawyer from Maine who attended Vermont Law School, said he has been involved with a number of other biomass projects that were completed. He said he served an in-house general counsel for companies that had biomass projects in Maine, Michigan, and New Hampshire. He said he worked for Alternative Energy Inc., a company involved with three plants in Maine in the towns of Ashland, Livermore Falls, and Chester. He said the Chester plant was built in the late 1980s and is no longer in operation, while the ones in Ashland and Livermore Falls were constructed in the mid-1990s and are still producing power.

Beaver Wood Energy also includes Bill Bousquet, managing director of engineering and construction, and Ted Verrill, both of Maine. Emero said Beaver Wood has registered with the Vermont Secretary of State as a corporation based in Delaware. He said many companies have done the same, as Delaware is a favorable location to make corporate filings from, but he anticipates Beaver Wood will switch to being a Vermont company in the future.

Kristal Flagg, the town clerk in Livermore Falls, said she lives about a mile away from the biomass facility there and while there have been some issues, the plant has been a "good neighbor."

Flagg said Livermore Falls is a small town of about 3,200 people. When the project there was initially proposed, there were concerns about truck traffic, the amount of jobs created, and what would be burned.

In the early 2000s, Flagg said the plant started to burn railroad ties and telephone poles, which left a greasy black film on her vehicles and house. She said the plant stopped after complaints were made, and the company that came to own it paid to have the vehicles cleaned.

"For the most part, they held up their end of the bargain," Flagg said, adding that the plant has paid its taxes on time and provided a market for "waste wood." She said she comes from a family of loggers who sell low quality wood to the plant, which is currently owned by Boralex, a power company based in Canada.

Flagg said Livermore Falls has a number of mills, and people are used to smells from them, but the biomass plant does not seem to produce any kind of odor. She said the owners have been responsive to complaints, but nothing has come up in years.

Emero said there are a number of reasons why the proposed Pownal facility will not switch to burning anything other than clean wood. He said aside from the lease agreement with Southern Vermont Energy Park, LLC, the permit it intends to file for does not allow it, plus the equipment being used in the plant is not designed to burn anything else and would malfunction if it tried.

Snook said while Vermont law doesn’t say no outright to burning construction debris, the level of pollution controls that would be needed for a permit would be cost prohibitive.

330,000 tons of wood

The 330,000 tons per year of wood the plant will use, Emero said, will come from existing logging operations within a 50 mile radius of the plant. He said studies show there is 3.2 million square acres of timberland within a 30 mile radius, 79 percent of which is privately owned. He said the amount of new growth per year is 1.9 million tons, 250,000 of which is considered "waste" material. He said the plant should be able to use about half of that for the biomass and pellet operations.

Emero said Vermont’s forests are being "high graded," which means that high quality timber is being taken out, while unusable material is being left to grown and take over. He said to keep land forested, unless it’s going to become a state or federal park a value has to placed on it so its owner isn’t forced to develop.

He said it’s been estimated 70 trucks per day will come to the site using the northern entrance, many being 18-wheelers. He said the plant may also use the nearby railroad to ship pellets out.

The plant’s effect on the nearby Hoosic River has also been a concern for residents.

"The current plan is to use water from the river to cool the facility," Emero said, adding that the experts the company has hired believes the amount of water it will draw is within state limitations. He said the small amount of water left over will be discharged into something similar to a leachfield, rather than directly into the river.

Aside from emissions and water, the biomass process will produce ash. "Ash is certainly a byproduct of the combustion of wood and it is a beneficial substance used by farmers and others in agriculture," Emero said. "It’s basically a lye substitute."

He said he anticipates the ash would be given to local farmers for free or a reduced cost, depending on who spreads it.

The pellet side of the operation will also include dust and noise controls, Emero said. Some of the pellets, along with fuel for the burner, will be stored on site in silos and warehouses until it can be used or shipped. "Every transfer point is an issue where you engineer to minimize dust creation," he said, one of those transfer points is a conveyer belt that will be covered.

Certificate of public good

For the plant to be built, it must get a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board, a quasi-judicial group of three people appointed by the governor and advised by the Public Service Department. The law Beaver Wood will file under is known as Act 248, and is similar to Act 250 only it applies to power generation facilities. Companies that file must commission studies and have their experts cross examined in front of the board by members of the department.

"The Act 248 process is probably one of the most vigorous in the country," said Emero.

Act 248 over-arches local zoning laws, but the board is required to hear concerns from town officials and residents. Emero said the company is a few weeks away from filing paperwork informing the board of its intention to file a full permit application. From then, it has 45 days to submit the application.

"Everybody we’ve talked to has been very supportive," Emero said. "We understand that there are some people that are concerned and the nature of the concerns that I’m hearing seemed to be based on either misconceptions or not good information as to various things." He added that those concerns are valid, but once more information is put out anxiety will subside.

A group of about 20 people met Tuesday calling themselves Concerned Citizens of Pownal. The meeting was organized by Planning Commission member Jordan Schell-Lambert, who said he wished to get efforts under way to learn more about the project. About half of the people who attended said they were against the project while the other half indicated they were undecided and wanted more information.

In terms of economics, after completing the 26-month construction phase, the plant will employ 50 full-time positions," Emero said, adding those jobs will largely be the kind locals without specialized training can apply for.

"The economic impact of this project on the state can’t be over emphasized," Emero said. "This project will spend about $31.5 million per year in the region, whether that’s through direct labor, indirect labor, or the harvesting of the forest products."

He said the project would create 960 jobs statewide, 770 in Bennington County during the construction phase. Permanent jobs outside the plant are estimated to be 140 people statewide, 70 in Bennington County, he said.

In terms of taxes, the plant would pay $525,000, or 45 percent of the town’s property taxes, Emero said. Beaver Wood will also pay for wear and tear to the roads created by the additional traffic.

Emero said Beaver Wood has no plan to sell the plant once its completed and is hoping to become part of the SPEED program, a state system that subsidized renewable energy projects at above market rates in order to encourage the technology’s proliferation. He said he doesn’t anticipate financing for the project being a hurdle, and told the Banner in a separate interview that the company is also making use of the EB-5 program, which allows foreign investors to obtain green cards.

Other residents have expressed worries over possible loss to the value of their properties. "We’d love to talk to anyone who is concerned," Emero said, adding that no one he is aware of near the plant in Burlington has requested compensation for any property value loss, despite it being in close proximity to residents and being larger than what is proposed in Pownal.

He said he believes if any such loss in value were to occur, it would be small.

Sometime around the third week in October, Beaver Wood intends to bus people to a working biomass facility so they can observe it. He said he hopes for a mix of people from town officials to residents against the project to come along.

Prior to that, an open-house has been scheduled at the proposed site for Sept. 25 at 11 a.m. where people from the company will answer questions.

Contact Keith Whitcomb at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com.