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Largest U.S. Biomass Plant to be Built Near Austin, Texas

The largest ever U.S. biomass power plant (100 megawatts) is to be built near Austin, Texas. Austin's city council approved a 20-year, $2.3 billion plan to purchase power from a proposed plant fueled entirely by wood waste and to be built and managed by Nacogdoches Power, LLC. The plant will run on "forest residues, whole tree chips, municipal tree waste and mill residue," according to Nacogdoches' website, and will begin full-scale operation in the spring of 2012. Nacogdoches is a joint venture of Bay Corp. Holdings, Ltd and Energy Management, Inc., which runs gas- and wood-fired plants up and down the eastern seaboard.

While the word "biomass" may have a nice, greenie, eco-friendly ring to it, most wood-waste-fired plants derive their energy the old fashioned way: they burn it. The warm-and-fuzzy term "biomass" was minted in the 1970s to describe just about any organic material used as a fuel to produce energy. Some of these fuels can produce energy via various fermentation processes. Others are simply burned directly. The Nacogdoches plant will essentially be burning wood chips, though the Austin Energy says it will adhere to the most stringent emissions standards, capping "CO2 emissions from generation" and offsetting "current emissions as well as emissions from future generation through either the purchase of CO2 credits or other means."

But for the City of Austin, liberal bastion though it is, the issue is less "green" than it is red, white and blue. The Nacogdoches plant will supply the city with much-needed energy; energy not derived from foreign fossil fuels. As fossil fuel-rich as Texas is, like most U.S. states it still imports a significant amount of natural gas to meet its electricity needs. In addition, the new plant will offset the higher cost of transporting wind-derived energy from other parts of the state. Austin Energy also says that the new plant will help bring renewables to 18 percent of its energy production by 2012. Biomass currently supplies about 3 percent of U.S. electricity needs, though energy independence evangelists say it could one day supply as much as 20 percent.

The deal has drawn criticism from rival biomass power company, American Biorefining & Energy Inc., whose CEO, Michael Bishop, loudly complained to the Austin City Council about the city not taking competitive bids on the new plant. In addition, an editorial in the Austin American Statesman warned that ratepayers "may come to regret" the new plant.

This intelligence comes to us via Renewable Energy Focus.