February 14, 2012

YIKES! Dominion Power Embraces Biomass Incineration in Southern Virginia

By: Ernie Reed
Posted: February 14, 2012

Virginia Electric Power is proposing to burn trees and other vegetation to generate large amounts of electricity at three of its power generating stations in Alta Vista, Hopewell and South Hampton, Virginia[1].  For the reasons stated below, this is a big step backwards in the direction that utilities should be moving – toward clean and truly renewable sources of energy.

All vegetation contains carbon and carbon is easily burned to create heat.  However, the carbon stored in the tissue of plants, when incinerated, results in the release of carbon dioxide.  The increasing presence of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere affects climate, threatening to push temperatures and sea level beyond points bearable to us, and to plants and animals without the adaptive mobility of humans.[2]

Trees and vegetation are the lungs of the earth.  More than a resource, they are a primary source of life-giving oxygen.  Trees, vegetation, and the soils they help create absorb and store carbon for the long term.  Standing forests store huge amounts of carbon.[3]  Conversely, land stripped of vegetation creates a carbon debt it cannot repay.[4]

The concept of the carbon neutrality of biomass incineration is a myth perpetrated by those who stand to profit from it.  Biomass incinerators like those in Alta Vista, Hopewell and South Hampton siphon off financial incentives from true renewables like small scale and offshore wind and solar energy.  [5]

Consider the following:

  • Because biomass has a lower heating value than fossil fuels, burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide than coal or natural gas per unit of energy produced. [6]
  • Biomass emits more nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) per unit of energy produced than coal and natural gas.[7]
  • Because of its low heat energy value and the volume of fuel required to keep the turbines turning, biomass has the highest fuel transportation cost and puts a greater demands on transportation infrastructure than fossil fuels.[8]
  • Biomass removal robs soils of essential decomposing vegetative matter and nutrients that make its use unsustainable.[9]
  • Due to the public health impacts to air quality from increased particulate, biomass incinerators are opposed by the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the Academy of Family Physicians and Physicians for Social Responsibility.[10]

The savings created by reducing energy consumption are huge.  The costs of increasing energy supply are huge and growing bigger by the day.  If these incinerators are licensed, we will soon find that we can’t afford the cost of their fuel.  There is not nearly enough wood “waste” to fuel these incinerators even a fraction of the time.  Wood chips from Virginia and North Carolina are already shipped to Europe because that is where their greatest value lies. [11] These incinerators cannot be cost effective.   They are likely to remain offline most of the time and renewal portfolio standards may fail to be met.[12]

Dominion Power is glad to have the government pay for the changeover from coal to biomass.  It makes them look “green” and allows them to charge higher rates for their electricity.

The good news is that these three coal burners have been used only sporadically in the past few years because the electricity has not been needed and they are not cost effective.  No one has suffered while the plants have been offline.

Virginia Power now proposes to run these three incinerators 24/7.  Everyday people are finding ways to conserve, to do more with less and to tighten their energy budgets.  Dominion should follow that lead.

These three biomass plants are bad for the health and the wealth of all Virginians.  They are bad for our forests, for our agriculture and for our infrastructure.  They are bad for air, for climate and for the earth.  They should not be approved for operation using biomass as a fuel.


[1] VSCC Case # PUE-2011-00073, Virginia Electric and Power Co. – For approval and certification of proposed biomass conversion of Altavista Power Station under VA Code sections 56-580 D and 56-46.1 and for approval of a rate adjustment clause, designated as Rider B, under 56-585.1 A 6

[2] Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error (Searchinger, et. al.,Science Magazine, Oct 2009.)

[3] Luyssaert, S., Detlef Schulze, E. Borner, A., Knohl, A., Hessenmoller, D., Law, B.E., Ciais, P., & Grace, J. Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks. Nature Vol 455|11 September 2008; Zhou, G., Liu, S., Li, Z., Zhnag, D., Tang, Z, Zhou, C., Yan, J., Mo, J. Old-Growth Forests Can Accumulate Carbon in Soils. Science Vol 314, 1 December 2006.

[4] Depro, B.M., Murray, B.C., Alig, R.J., Shanks, A. Public land, timber harvests, and climate mitigation: Quantifying carbon sequestration potential on U.S. public timberlands. Forest Ecology & Management 255(2008) 1122-1134; Davis, S. C., Hessl, A., Scott, C.J., Adams, M.B., Thomas, R.B. Forest carbon sequestration changes in response to timber harvest. Forest Ecology & Management 258 (2009) 2101-2109; Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study,   Prepared for: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Department of Energy Resources by the Manomet Center for Conservation Science, June, 2010.

[5] Biomass Electricity: Clean Energy Subsidies for a Dirty Industry–The case for ending taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies that harm public health, environment, climate, and forests, Sheehan, M., Chirillo, Schlossberg, j., Sammons, W., Leonard, M and the Energy Justice Network,  Biomass Accountability Project, June 2011.

[6] (ibid., Manomet)

[7] (ibid., Manomet)

[8] (ibid., Manomet)

[9] Nunery, J.S. & Keeton, W.S. Forest carbon storage in the northeastern United States: Net effects of harvesting frequency, post-harvest retention, and wood products. Forest Ecology & Management (2010) In Press.