FirstEnergy Fights Environmental Group’s Supreme Court Appeal

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To save, or not to save?
  • To save, or not to save?

The battle is heating up over what Ohio utility companies can use as renewable biomass fuel to stoke their power plants.

We reported two weeks ago that the Ohio Environmental Council filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court in November (“Dead Wood,” January 19, 2011). It’s their attempt to overturn a renewable-energy certification granted by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to FirstEnergy’s R.E. Burger power plant in rural Shadyside.

At issue is the environmental group’s interest in having the PUCO determine whether a particular biomass material is actually renewable and sustainable before issuing lifetime certifications for it. FirstEnergy, on the other hand, would prefer that it doesn’t.

The Council claims that the PUCO green-lit FirstEnergy’s proposal to burn biomass without asking exactly what sort of fuel it had in mind. It turned out FirstEnergy planned to burn wood — mostly chipped trees — in an amount that would have doubled the 1.7 million tons of trees currently logged in the state each year. To those who enjoy their landscape broken up by the occasional tree, this seemed like a bad idea.

FirstEnergy dropped the project within days of the appeal, despite having plunged $15 million into equipping its Burger plant to burn biomass. But the company now says it plans to defend the PUCO decision anyway.
To the Environmental Council, FirstEnergy’s fight means it might be clinging to plans to burn trees after all.

“If they have really pulled the plug on this project, why haven’t they withdrawn their PUCO application?” says Will Reisinger, a lawyer for the Council.

Meanwhile, FirstEnergy insists the Burger plant will be shut down and that burning biomass there is no longer on the table. “That decision is final,” says spokeswoman Ellen Raines.

The company is defending the plant’s PUCO certification because “the Supreme Court appeal includes legal matters that go beyond the issue of the Burger Plant certification and could have implications for other renewable projects,” she says. Translation: This deal was too sweet to let go.

Everybody agrees that the case has far-reaching implications. “The PUCO continues to sign off on dubious biomass energy projects such as the Burger retrofit without knowing anything about the source of the biomass fuel,” says Reisinger. “We believe this procedure violates Ohio law.”

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