Within 15 years, Ohio will have to get one-eighth of its power from clean-energy and renewable sources. That mandate, the product of a two-year-old state law, should help promote the solar and wind-power industries that are emerging in northwest Ohio. It also encourages the generation of power from biomass, a shorthand term for fuel produced from plant matter or animal waste.
A plan by FirstEnergy Corp. to convert an old coal-fired power plant in eastern Ohio to one of the nation's largest biomass facilities might seem a win-win, supposedly producing both a cleaner environment and green-energy jobs. But before it certifies the plan, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio needs to ensure that the retooled plant will yield genuinely clean, renewable energy.
FirstEnergy intends to burn wood — potentially millions of trees every year — to generate most of the power at its R.E. Burger plant, the Akron Beacon Journal reports. The utility chose the biomass option over adding costly scrubbers to meet federal clean-air mandates, or closing the facility.
Not only would the power produced by the biomass plant enable FirstEnergy to meet the state advanced-energy mandate, the company also could sell excess energy at a favorable rate to other utilities to help them comply with the law.
That prospect concerns environmental activists, who say the consumption of so many trees would not be sustainable, much less renewable, They say the plan could denude forests in Ohio and other states — hardly a way to combat climate change.
Consumer advocates contend that FirstEnergy could corner the market on renewable-energy credits, largely because of special advantages conferred by the state that they estimate could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They say these benefits would subsidize FirstEnergy while working to the detriment of competitors, including producers of solar and wind power. FirstEnergy says it needs the credits to make the plan work.
FirstEnergy executives have been circumspect about where the company will get the wood to power the Burger plant, how it will transport the raw materials and in what form, and how it will make the fuel. Surely the PUCO will want to get answers to those questions before it declares the Burger plant a renewable-energy facility eligible for the credits.
Another question is how green the biomass facility truly would be. Some national studies suggest that burning biomass may generate as much carbon dioxide — a major contributor to global warming — as burning coal. FirstEnergy says emissions from the converted Burger plant will be much cleaner than they were when the facility relied on coal.
Other utilities that do business in Ohio intend to ramp up their use of biomass. FirstEnergy also plans to burn biomass at its Bay Shore plant in Oregon.
Sooner or later, then, the PUCO will have to resolve issues related to biomass — sustainability, renewability, greenhouse gas emissions, economic implications. It might as well tackle them now, while Ohio's next-generation energy industry takes shape.