July 21, 2008

Laidlaw Chose Good Site for Biomass Plant

Laidlaw Energy Group may or may not be the best possible developer of a biomass power plant on Old Concord Road in Henniker. More will be known after public hearings are concluded and the company has filed a formal proposal with local, state and federal authorities. Several things, however, are clear.

The need to switch to indigenous, renewable sources of clean energy is imperative. Generating heat and electricity by burning virgin wood is such a source. The 65-megawatt biomass plant would be the largest one of its kind in the region. The contribution it would make to the state's goal of producing 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025 would be considerable.

The efficiency of biomass power plants continues to improve. Laidlaw says between 20 percent and 75 percent of the heat content of the fuel is available to spin the turbine to generate electricity. The overall efficiency of a plant is increased dramatically if, instead of cooling the water in towers before re- circulating it, it's used to heat buildings. That's what Concord Steam does and will continue to do when it builds its new plant near downtown Concord. Some of the excess heat the Henniker plant generates will be used by an adjacent business to dry wood in kilns.

Like the one operated by Public Service Co. of New Hampshire in Newington and Concord Steam, the Henniker plant will burn wood chips. Turning trees in the woods into chips and getting them to the power plant will create jobs. As biomass plants proliferate, the demands on the forests will grow and scrutiny of forestry practices will have to increase. New Hampshire's forestry associations, environmental groups and government are up to the job.

It's also clear that, when properly built, operated and monitored, biomass power plants are cleaner than coal or oil-fired plants and almost as clean as plants that burn natural gas, a fuel that's no longer an affordable option. Non-nuclear power plants are relatively simple. Heat from a burning fuel turns water in a boiler to steam, which is used to spin a turbine to generate electricity. How cleanly the plant operates depends on the efficiency of the combustion process and the effectiveness of pollution control measures.

Laidlaw says that getting, and keeping, the necessary operating permits will require that the company use state-of-the art combustion and pollution control technology. That technology exists, and it eliminates more than 99 percent of the particulate matter (dust) and nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog. The Henniker plant, unlike the initial plans for the BioEnergy plant proposed for Hopkinton will burn only clean, virgin wood. Power plants in New Hampshire are banned from burning construction debris that could be contaminated with paint, metals and preservatives.

Finally, the site selected by Laidlaw, despite opposition from some area residents, is appropriate. It is on a road through a flood district with a saw mill, several wood products businesses and few residences. The road is already used by trucks serving those businesses and lightly used by motorists in cars. The site is also close to the transmission lines needed to carry the electricity the plant would produce.

The power is needed, the fuel is green, the jobs are welcome and the site is good. Next, Laidlaw will have to prove that it's up to the job of building a biomass plant and running it responsibly.

Originally published by Monitor staff.

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