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FirstEnergy Agrees to Switch Coal Plant to Biomass

In a first for the American power industry, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy called Ohio Edison has agreed to switch two coal-powered generators to biomass fuel, creating electricity by burning a mixture of wood, crop residues and other waste.

The plan is the result of a Justice Department order that mandated the company either shut down the plant, install a scrubber or switch to natural gas. FirstEnergy chose the last option, but asked for a modification to use biomass instead of gas.

It's an interesting plan, because FirstEnergy's bean counters obviously added up the numbers and found that biomass was cheaper than the other two options, installing emissions scrubbers or using gas (shutting down the plant would not have sat well with the company's shareholders).

The refitted generators might also preemptively meet a concern that wasn't part of the original agreement, which only mandated reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. Ohio Edison's press release says that carbon dioxide emissions will "approach carbon neutrality", because the wood and other vegetation used for the fuel will absorb CO2 while growing.

Getting carbon credits for its CO2 reductions may well be FirstEnergy's plan for eventually making the biomass-fuelled plants as profitable as its coal generators. But it also risks bumping up against the resistance of the same groups who argue that ethanol production may actually produce significant amounts of CO2.

The devil is in the details, of course -- where does the biomass that's being used come from? If forests are cleared to plant energy crops, then CO2 emissions could be significant, and even plant matter like excess straw could be problematic, as a United Kingdom Environmental Agency report alleges, though it's aimed at the coal-burning utility Drax, which has its own plan to switch from coal to biomass.

For now the agreement only mandates using biomass that won't cause harmful emissions; animal waste and construction debris are forbidden, while byproducts from paper manufacturing are allowed only if not treated. Most other biomass, including crops, grasses, algae, food waste and any type of wood matter (like bark and leaves) can be used. The company can also co-fire up to 20 percent coal, but only low-sulfur varieties.

FirstEnergy has until 2012 to switch over the generators, which are located in Shadyside, Ohio.