Penns Valley

Environmental group criticizes Penns Valley biomass burner

Critics say Penns Valley’s biomass system shouldn’t qualify for tax breaks but the district says it weighed its options and knows the system is efficient and clean.
Critics say Penns Valley’s biomass system shouldn’t qualify for tax breaks but the district says it weighed its options and knows the system is efficient and clean. CDT file photo

Whenever a new technology is introduced, it invariably sparks debate between proponents and critics.

When that technology could affect the environment, the division can grow even further.

The Partnership for Policy Integrity, an environmental organization centered in Massachusetts and funded by the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, released a report and database Monday criticizing the Pennsylvania biomass energy industry.

The database, based on a 2012 report by the PFPI, attempts to make the previous information more accessible to readers, the organization said.

Among the organization’s “100 most polluting biomass energy facilities” in the state is the Penns Valley Area School District’s burner. It has been operating since 2011, district business manager Jef Wall said.

A majority of the PFPI’s work is focused on how much biomass burner facilities get in subsidies, organization founder Mary Booth said. While much of the focus centers on large electricity plants, such as the Evergreen Community Power plant in Reading, most of the burners in Pennsylvania are small thermal facilities, she said.

“Should something that emits so much CO2 and that much air pollution and has the potential to impact forests be getting renewable-energy subsidies and competing with wind and solar?” Booth said.

According to the latest PFPI report, Penns Valley has received $788,956 in stimulus funds and a $868,959 grant from the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association.

The district’s burner project began in 2009, Wall said. After receiving the funds, the district spent a year and a half on research and selected a boiler and burner that is cleaner than anything else on the market, he said.

“We’re confident we’re doing the right thing in terms of the environment and environmental impacts, improving air quality and doing something that is sustainable from a fuel standpoint,” he said.

The district’s burner heats about 250,000 square feet of classrooms in the high school and Penns Valley Elementary School, he said.

Biomass is any organic mass that can be turned into energy, Penn State professor of agricultural and biological engineering Tom Richard said.

Richard, who works at the Penn State Biomass Energy Center and is the director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, explained that biofuels range from corn ethanol and biodiesel to cellulosic plants and simple wood.

The burning of biomass can happen at many different scales, he said, and at each, there are different regulatory requirements and pollution control strategies.

“What you put into the biomass facility is what you get out in terms of air emissions,” Richard said. “Certainly different biomass sources will have different amounts of contaminates.”

One of the areas the PFPI is critical of, according to its report, is the types of fuels used in these burners. The five categories of fuel used are: mill residues; agricultural residues; energy crops; “urban wood,” such as construction and demolition waste; and forest wood.

Urban wood, the report said, can sometimes contain caustic chemicals that are released into the air along with the normal pollutants that come with burning wood.

Penns Valley uses a hard wood that is chipped to a specific size with a specific moisture content, Wall said. The burner then burns and re-burns the fuel again and again.

The burner is subject to all of the state Department of Environmental Protection regulations regarding large boilers, as well as periodic inspections, he said.

“We had the DEP here and they did air quality sampling when we first fired up back in January 2011,” Wall said.

According to Booth, all school burner emission rates were approved by the DEP to about 10 tons of particulate matter per year.

“But are they (always) emitting at that rate?” she said. “There’s evidence to suggest they’re not emitting at that rate all the time.”

When a facility gets a permit, she said, one of the requirements is to have its emissions measured.

“It’s something they know is happening,” she said. “It’s not a surprise test. One known thing that facilities do is tune (the) boiler to run optimally during the test. The testing results are not necessarily representative of what real emissions are under real circumstances.”

Nowhere in its report, however, does PFPI cite specific evidence that the school district’s burner is emitting at an unapproved rate or that the facility has tuned the boiler “to run optimally” during mandated testing.

Although Wall says the district has “hundreds of pages of data” showing a biomass burner is the best option for the district, he declined to go into further detail during a phone interview.

The state DEP could not be reached for comment by press time. The U.S. Department of Energy strongly backs biomass energy, saying that biomass fuels and a bioeconomy will help the country’s farms and woodlots and will be a source of major job growth over the next 15 years.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has received some backlash against biomass energy. In June, 91 leading scientists submitted a letter to the agency urging it to “draft new scientifically sound rules to curb carbon emissions from biomass-fueled power plants.”

The PFPI said it uses “science, policy analysis and strategic communications to promote sound energy policy,” but the organization has come under fire in the past in other states for its criticism of other biomass plants.

The North Springfield Sustainable Energy Project in Vermont said the PFPI “has not done their homework ... and spouts dishonest sound bites.” In Bucksport, Maine, the PFPI charged that the Verso Paper mill is “dirtier” than modern coal plants, but a mill spokesman said the organization draws on “bad data and faulty assumptions.”

Wall stands behind the district’s burner, saying it’s a win-win situation “all the way around.”

“This is not your granddad’s smoky backyard boiler,” he said. “This is a large commercial plant.”