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Published: Saturday, 1/29/2011

Brake on biomass

A case before the Ohio Supreme Court should have a lot to say about the state's renewable-energy standards and the utility-industry actions that are acceptable to meet them.

State law requires power companies to produce 12.5 percent of their electricity from advanced and renewable sources by 2025. FirstEnergy Corp., Toledo Edison's parent company, seeks to meet that mandate in part by converting a coal-fired plant in eastern Ohio to one of the nation's largest biomass facilities.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has certified the Burger plant in Belmont County as a renewable-energy facility. But the Ohio Environmental Council has challenged that certification before the state Supreme Court, asserting that too much ambiguity remains about how FirstEnergy would produce electricity at the plant, and whether the energy produced would be genuinely cleaner, renewable, and sustainable.

In 2009, FirstEnergy said it planned to burn wood instead of coal at the plant. But last November, the utility appeared to abandon that project because of cost concerns.

The certification approved by PUCO does not adequately specify the amount and type of biomass to be used at the Burger plant, the environmental council argues. It “gave FirstEnergy a blank check to burn almost anything it wants without any regulatory oversight, and allows the company to receive a windfall profit for doing so,” said Will Reisinger, the commission's lead attorney.

More broadly, the commission is challenging PUCO's procedure for certifying compliance with Ohio's green-energy law. Before the utilities panel certifies any new biomass applications, the Supreme Court needs to review the law thoroughly, including the implications of biomass-based power generation for Ohio's environment, economy, and renewable-energy industries.

The Burger plant case offers the high court an appropriate opportunity to do that.

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