First of all, what is biomass -- besides a buzzword? Biomass is, most simply, waste that's burned to generate electricity.
That waste can come from farms, an example would be corn husks. (Sometimes certain crops are grown specifically for biomass incinerators.) It can also come from places like Compost Central in the form of woody mulch, some of which is already being trucked to South Carolina for their incinerators. It can be the non-liquid stuff left over after sewage is treated. It can be medical waste, like the stuff in the red haz-mat canister at your doctor's office. And it can be regular 'ol trash, like the the stuff you roll out to the curb every week minus the recycleables, we hope.
Creating energy with biomass technology is nothing new, in fact it's old technology. Though, there are "new" twists, like gasification, that have been in use in other "green" countries like Austria, Germany and Japan for decades.
Using biomass solves one problem (what to do with our waste) and helps with another (energy creation); however, detractors say, in return, it creates other problems, like air pollution and ash that has to be used or stored in some sort of landfill.
Mecklenburg County has one incinerator right now. It burns medical waste but isn't currently generating electricity ... which is a waste in itself. It's also not up to code, so to speak, and contributes to the area's air pollution woes. In a phone conversation yesterday, County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts assured me the county is looking at both of these issues -- emissions and electricity production -- with that particular incinerator.
But, the biomass facility on everyone's mind right now hasn't even been built yet. (It will eventually be at the proposed eco-industrial park ReVenture, which sits on top of a Superfund site on the edge of the Catawba River between the U.S. National Whitewater Center and the City of Mount Holly.) In fact, not only has it not been built, Forsite Development, the company behind the project, hasn't announced whether they're going to use older incinerator technology or newer gasification technology.
Still, even without knowing what technology will be used, several governmental bodies have given the project their approval. This bothers a few environmental groups, like the Catawba Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and Sustain Charlotte.
While they like the ReVenture project in general, they take issue with the fact that a couple of the eco-industrial park's components -- one of which is the biomass facility and the other is a wastewater treatment plant -- will be polluters. Exactly what kind of pollution, and how much pollution, will depend on which technology the company decides to go with.
Shannon Binns, of Sustain Charlotte, told me last week, "There is no good incineration technology."
Commissioner Roberts, who along with other area leaders and educators has toured biomass facilities in Europe, takes issue with claims that the County Commission gave the project their approval without sufficient knowledge about the technology.
Meanwhile, Tom McKittrick, Forsite Development's CEO, is in a big rush to get ReVenture shovel-ready by the end of the year in an effort to qualify for $40-60 million in stimulus funds. Even with that ambitious goal, he says he and his partners decided to stop the air quality permitting process for the biomass plant because they wanted to look at newer, cleaner technologies that won't generate as much air pollution. He says he's mindful of Charlotte's air quality issues and is committed to building a plant that's a minor polluter.
However, until the company announces what type of plant they're building, it's difficult for anyone including environmental groups and the government to estimate what its impact will be on our air and water quality.
That's why we're tagging this issue as news to watch. So stay tuned.
Here's more about gasification from SilvaGas: