When FirstEnergy announced in the spring of 2009 that it would no longer burn coal at its R.E. Burger power plant, the news was met with a round of applause from green energy proponents.
After all, the Akron-based energy giant, which powers all of northern Ohio and large swaths of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, for years had ignored warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about dirty air belching from the Burger stacks. With a court-ordered deadline looming, FirstEnergy had been prodded by the Department of Justice to either clean up emissions or shut the place down.
In the plant's southeast Ohio town of Shadyside, a shutdown would have added 95 more workers to an already ballooning unemployment line during the height of the recession. Installing filters and other measures to remove the most dangerous pollutants, meanwhile, would have cost the company more than $300 million.
For FirstEnergy, there was another way out of the jam. The more economical — and public-relations savvy — solution was to convert the plant to burn cleaner biomass fuel at a cost of $200 million. Conveniently, the move would also position FirstEnergy far ahead in the race to satisfy Ohio's renewable-energy mandate. The state has decreed that utilities must increase the amount of energy they generate from renewable sources every year until 2025; by that point, roughly one-eighth of all electricity generated by utility companies here will be produced that way.
But the state's definition of renewable sources leaves less room for optimism. Burnable biomass, like solar and wind power, is considered renewable and can include agricultural waste like corn husks, leftovers from wood milling and tree trimming, and grasses grown specifically for fuel.
Also kosher by Ohio law: burning trees.
And FirstEnergy intended to take advantage, using wood at Burger to illuminate some 190,000 homes.
"The state's renewable energy mandate has a loophole you can drive multiple trucks through," says Cheryl Johncox, interim executive director of the Buckeye Forest Council, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to preserving Ohio's forested areas.
Indeed, by the time FirstEnergy's application to certify Burger as a renewable energy facility reached the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the government entity that regulates electricity production, environmental groups and Ohioans fond of their forests were asking how many diesel-burning trucks would be delivering an untold number of trees to Shadyside. Or would the logs be barged down the adjacent Ohio River?
The more pressing question: Where would the trees come from? Everyone except the PUCO was asking, and FirstEnergy wasn't saying. The Columbus Dispatch reported that the Burger plant alone would use twice the 1.7 million tons of wood already being logged each year in Ohio.
A Toledo Blade editorial urged the PUCO to come to its senses by at least addressing issues of biomass sustainability, renewability, economy, and emissions.
Locally, the Akron Beacon Journal revealed that FirstEnergy intended to use mostly Ohio trees — poplar and ash, supplemented with wood from other states — and would perhaps import genetically modified southern pine from the Carolinas to grow here.
"Frankentrees," Johncox calls them, with a mix of humor and disdain.
FirstEnergy's request for renewable-energy certification at the Burger plant was one of just nine such requests put before the PUCO in 2009. Two of these were for FirstEnergy's Bayshore plant near Toledo, where the company intended only to replace up to 20 percent of coal with biomass.
The three other major utility companies operating in Ohio — Dayton Power and Light, Duke Energy, and American Electric Power — also intended to burn small amounts of biomass in their coal plants. The applications included sketchy details — if any details at all — about exactly what type of biomass material would be used, how much would be burned, or where it would come from.
All of these projects combined could produce up to 2,100 megawatts of electricity annually.
"That would require the cutting and chipping of 357 square miles of trees every year," says Johncox, an amount of land equal to more than three-fourths of Cuyahoga County. "This isn't a crop that grows back in a year. It takes a tree 30 to 90 years to grow enough to offset the carbon deficit formed by burning one." According to Johncox, burning one tree immediately releases 50 percent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning an equivalent amount of coal.
"When the Ohio law was written, they were thinking, as many Americans were, that this type of biomass would be generated from waste wood or from annual crops. But what has in fact happened is that the utilities have found that's not the ideal fuel source," Johncox says. "The ideal fuel source is wood or wood chips."
The utility companies agree. "Wood has a higher heat content than some other agricultural material, and that's certainly a factor for choosing fuels for a biomass project," says FirstEnergy spokeswoman Ellen Raines. "But there are other factors, such as availability and the cost of transport, that would make those other materials more attractive."
American Electric Power serves central and southern Ohio, as well as ten other states. According to spokeswoman Melissa McHenry, the choice of material their plants burn depends on the plant. "Some of the old boilers are particular about what kind of fuel they burn, and they can be finicky. It's the same with coal. Some boilers prefer western coal to that mined in the east," she says. In other words, burning grasses or other agricultural waste may be more likely to muck up a power plant's innards.
As the Buckeye Forest Council, the Sierra Club, and the Ohio Environmental Council were grappling with the notion that burning so many trees amounted to a considerably less than sustainable practice, critics emerged on the financial side too.
When Ohio enacted its renewable energy mandate in 2008, it created a financial incentive for companies to comply by issuing renewable energy credits for each megawatt of electricity produced from renewable sources. Utility companies earning the credits can sell them, like any other commodity, to offset the cost of their renewable energy generation efforts. Companies unable to produce enough renewable energy can buy the credits in order to meet the state-mandated annual benchmarks.
But the plan quickly showed signs of backfiring. If the huge Burger project were approved, FirstEnergy would have been awarded the bulk of the renewable energy credits available in the state. This could have prompted other companies to simply buy the credits from FirstEnergy, rather than investing in wind, solar, or other environmentally sound projects of their own.
With the once green-sounding plan to burn biomass becoming sootier by the day, lawyers for environmental groups showered the PUCO with objections to each request for renewable energy certification on the table.
The Ohio Consumers Council, a state agency, joined in to voice concerns that the potentially high costs of procuring and burning biomass would be unfairly passed on to consumers through rate increases. "We also wanted to ensure that when a customer agreed to pay more for renewable energy, that they were getting energy from a truly renewable source," says Ann Hotz, an attorney for the Consumers Council.
The combined effort resulted in some questions finally being asked during the 2010 PUCO public hearings for the biomass projects. On two occasions, objections from the Consumers Council delayed approval for the Burger plant.
"But it was weird," Hotz says. The PUCO seemed to indicate that the use of renewable resources would be verified only when a company came back before the commission to request its renewable energy credits for each megawatt of energy that had been produced with biomass fuel. "But that happens only after they have been up and running, making this whole certification process rather useless."
Documents filed with the PUCO detailing the utility companies' responses to pertinent questions verify the weirdness. Duke Energy, which supplies electricity mainly in Indiana and the Carolinas, but also to small parts of Ohio and Kentucky, was requesting certification to burn biomass with coal at three Ohio plants. An exchange with the Buckeye Forest Council regarding details of one of the projects went as follows:
Question: "Identify the anticipated annual amount [of biomass] in tonnage, to be used at the facility."
Duke: "Biomass fuel anticipated to be used at the facility will depend upon market conditions and technical feasibility once test burns are conducted. It is therefore impossible to anticipate annual amount in tonnage to be used at the facility."
Question: "Describe in detail the source and method of obtaining the wood pellets or other biomass materials procured to create the energy."
Duke: "The exact sources and methods for obtaining the wood pellets or other biomass materials to create the energy asserted are not yet known with any degree of certainty."
Question: "Identify and describe any sustainability certifications, sourcing standards, or other protocol that will be used in conjunction with the production and transport of the wood pellets or other biomass product to be utilized."
Duke: "Although there have been no commitments to biomass fuel supply with any particular supplier at this time, Duke expects to require supplier to certify the harvesting and collection methods according to applicable state Best Management Practices as well as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or other comparable programs."
Question: "Describe the anticipated net carbon output of the biomass-fueled energy cycle at the facility."
Duke: "At this time, Duke Energy Ohio is not in a position to be able to anticipate the net carbon output."
Clearly, Duke had no idea how much or what type of biomass it would burn, where it would get it, and how it would ensure renewability — or how much more pollution would be caused by burning biomass at the plant. The PUCO approved Duke's certification anyway.
After rounds of similar interrogations, the PUCO also approved renewable energy certifications for Burger, an American Electric Power facility in Conesville (70 miles northeast of Columbus), and Dayton Power and Light's Killen plant in southern Ohio. An additional three applications are pending.
(One certification the PUCO approved is up to snuff: a new, 100 percent biomass project being privately developed by South Point Biomass Generation in Ohio's Appalachian foothills. Although South Point will require a large amount of biomass fuel for the 200 megawatt plant, its initial PUCO application listed more than 30 specific suppliers of waste wood products from which it plans to purchase. South Point also will certify that all wood used is indeed waste and untreated with harmful pollutants through a large national certification program.)
"It's not that we don't care where the resource is coming from or the sustainability of that resource," says Kim Wissman, the PUCO's director of energy and the environment. "This commission alone doesn't have the authority or the ability to determine sustainability, because biomass isn't exclusive to the electric industry. We can only affect what the electric industry does."
The Ohio Environmental Council views it differently. "The PUCO writes their own rules," says Will Reisinger, staff attorney for the group, which represents the Sierra Club, the Buckeye Forest Council, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. "PUCO is giving [utility companies] a blank check with renewable energy credits in their back pocket."
In November, Reisinger filed an appeal on behalf of the three environmental groups with the Ohio Supreme Court, aiming to force the commission to rewrite its rules, which otherwise would not be up for review until 2013. The state legislature could also intervene, he says.
Within days of the Supreme Court filing — and after already spending $15 million on the conversion — FirstEnergy announced it would scrap its biomass plans for Burger and would shut down the plant instead. The company also withdrew one of its two biomass applications for the Toledo-area plant.
FirstEnergy says the decision was purely economic.
"There was nothing about the cost of the biomass fuel supply that changed our plans," says spokeswoman Raines. "It was the general economy. The cost of electricity has come down because of lower industrial and commercial use."
According to Raines, FirstEnergy has no plans to revisit large biomass energy production. Instead, it will meet the near-term renewable energy mandate by buying renewable energy certificates from other producers, while it focuses on partnering with wind energy developers to meet the longer term obligations of the Ohio law.
By mid-December, Duke and American Electric Power followed suit by putting biomass plans on hold. Both cite the cost of biomass material. "Biomass is typically a faster way to comply with renewable energy requirements," says American Electric's McHenry. "But the cost estimates have come in, and other options are more competitive."
Unlike FirstEnergy, however, Duke and American Electric are leaving biomass fuel on the table — where it can sit indefinitely in case of more favorable economic shifts, thanks to the PUCO certifications both companies received. According to the PUCO's Wissman, there is no refiling requirement unless the approved plans for a facility change significantly.
So who is responsible for regulating the type and sustainability of biomass fuel burned in Ohio? No one.
Dayton Power and Light is moving forward with the PUCO certification it received to burn up to 5 percent biomass with coal at its Killen plant. In late December, the Ohio EPA cleared the facility to burn biomass amid protests from the Ohio Environmental Council.
"Dayton Power and Light don't disclose what type of material they are going to be burning there," Reisinger says.
The approval was pushed through during a tumultuous time for clean air laws. Beginning January 2, the U.S. EPA would regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions for the first time. Under the new law, a power plant making a modification that would increase its greenhouse gas emissions by 75,000 tons per year would require special permitting and the installation of more expensive technology to monitor those emissions. (By comparison, First Energy's similarly sized Burger plant emitted about 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually when it was operating.)
If Dayton Power and Light's permit were issued by the Ohio EPA prior to January 2, the energy company would not be required to disclose its carbon dioxide emissions to the state. The EPA closed the required public comment period for the permit on December 20 and issued the final permit on December 29, with three days to spare.
According to Reisinger, the span of only nine days between the end of public comments and issue of the permit is unprecedented.
Ohio EPA spokesman Heidi Griesmer says there is no statute dictating that the agency must act on an application within a certain time frame. It also does not track average times between the end of public comment periods and final permit issuance. But, Griesmer says, the average time from initial application to final permit in 2010 was 127 days. The Killen application was processed in 122 days.
The EPA, however, cannot regulate what goes into the burners, only what comes back out in emissions.
While the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the Ohio Environmental Council's appeal, Johncox wants the Buckeye Forest Council to work with the wood products industry and other nonprofit and environmental groups to propose new state regulations and sustainability requirements for biomass sources.
Johncox says the entire country is watching what Ohio does, because it is the only state where all the major public utilities are trying to go green in part by retrofitting old coal-burning plants to use biomass. "We are the poster child," she says. All but 15 states have ongoing renewable or alternative energy mandates like Ohio's, but elsewhere, major utility companies intending to use biomass fuel are building new plants specifically designed for it.
Meanwhile, Ohio's forests are shrinking for the first time since the 1940s and have reached a tipping point, according to the most recent U.S. Forest Inventory. Privately owned forests have been subject to subdivision, and tree harvests were estimated to occur on one-fifth of those forests between 2006 and 2011. Only 4 percent of the landowners have a forest management plan in place, and fewer than one in seven ask the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry for help when making decisions about their land.
The state owns only 200,000 acres of forest, and all of it was recently certified as sustainable by two independent organizations. "We only cut timber that doesn't affect the habitat or anything else," says Chad Sanders, land management administrator for Ohio's Division of Forestry. "We wanted people to know our forests are managed; they're always going to be there."
Sanders says the state currently sells timber to only about 130 very small, mom-and-pop-type paper and sawdust businesses.
Last week, Governor John Kasich appointee David Mustine took over the state's Department of Natural Resources. Mustine was formerly a vice president at American Electric Power.
"We are concerned," says Reisinger. "It's kind of like letting the fox guard the henhouse."