COLUMBIA, SC — Pitched as clean sources of renewable energy, biomass plants like those in South Carolina are more dangerous to the environment than many people realize, according to researchers with the Partnership for Public Integrity.
Unlike wind and solar farms, biomass plants release toxic air pollutants, smog-forming contaminants and greenhouse gases, the group said in a report being released Wednesday. Sometimes, pollution levels can be more acute than contaminated material wafting from coal and natural gas plants, researchers said.
But the partnership said the federal government is offering subsidies for wood-burning plants, as well as breaks from important federal air pollution rules, in an effort to push renewable energy.
“Even with modern emissions controls, biomass electricity plants pollute more than coal per unit of energy produced,” according to the partnership, which says it provides science and legal support to citizen groups, environmental organizations and policymakers.
The group’s report looked at 88 biomass plants in 25 states, including an Allendale County plant cited as an example of how biomass facilities are a concern for the environment. Many plants underestimate the amount of pollution they will release to avoid tighter federal air pollution regulations, the report said.
At Allendale, the study says EDF Energies Nouvelle’s 17.5 megawatt plant is classified as a minor source of hazardous air pollution, but it would be regulated as a major source if the company had not used an industry-backed method to calculate its emissions. The study says better standards should be used to calculate such emissions. Being regulated as a major source would trigger tighter controls on pollution, the report said.
Report author Mary Booth, an ecologist who studies biomass issues, said the study suggests the Allendale facility has permission to release more hazardous air contaminants than it should, although testing would be needed to verify that.
The Allendale plant, which began operations last fall, each year is expected to release 236,153 tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas; 241 tons of nitrogen oxide; 30 tons of sulfur dioxide; and 36 tons of large-grained soot. The plant is supposed to burn only clean, untreated wood as waste fuel, the study said.
EDF’s plant took a hit last summer in a federal court case that threw out an exemption for biomass plants from greenhouse gas pollution rules. Through the exemption, the Allendale plant gained permission to release up to 50 percent more nitrogen oxide than it would have without the federal break for biomass plants, according to documents filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
An attempt to reach EDF was unsuccessful Tuesday. But Santee Cooper, the power company that acquires energy from the EDF plant, said questions about carbon pollution from such plants are overstated because the plants are considered “carbon neutral.” Company spokeswoman Mollie Gore also questioned the credentials of the Partnership for Policy Integrity.
She and state regulators said the plant has modern pollution controls. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said the EDF plant is regulated by at least five standards and regulations that protect public health and the environment. It says the plant’s air permit includes “stringent emission limits and stack test requirements.” The plant also is small compared to coal plants, DHEC said.
“Biomass is a clean, renewable energy source that our nation relies upon to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Bob Cleaves, president of the national Biomass Power Association.
South Carolina has at least three biomass plants that burn wood material for the primary purpose of generating electricity, state regulators say. Some 69 industrial plants burn wood for boilers they use, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Among the biomass plants touted in the state as green energy is a facility completed in 2012 at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex. That plant opened amid great fanfare, including a visit from Department of Energy officials in Washington. The facility was approved to burn waste wood, as well as shredded tires. EDF also has a plant in Dorchester County. Another plant, cited briefly in the report, is planned for Newberry County. That plant’s owners were not named.