Xcel to Kick Coal and Boost Biomass

Today, Xcel Energy said it intends to convert a coal-fired power generator in Wisconsin to burn gas derived from biomass. The Bay Front Power Plant in Ashland, Wisc., has three generator units, two of which burn biomass generating 46 megawatts of power while the third, a 30-megawatt unit, burns pulverized coal. Under the proposed $55 to $70 million plan, that third unit would be converted to burn syngas from gasified wood waste.

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Just last month we reported a similar scenario, in which Georgia Power is seeking approval from regulators to convert an aging coal-fired unit in Albany, Ga., to burn renewable biomass from the local forestry industry. We’ve added this latest biomass-for-coal swap to our coal deathwatch map with a second green pin. Also last month, Austin Energy has it massive plans for a new $2.3 billion, 100-megawatt biomass plant approved.

Xcel’s manager of environmental policy, Jim Turnure, tells Earth2Tech that the Bay Front conversion is part of a trend towards utility-scale biomass power, driven by a number of forces: state policies, federal incentives, consumer demand and economic trends that are making biomass cost-competitive with coal. Turnure added that this is part of Xcel’s push to cleanup its business. The utility said recently that it was voluntarily shuttering two coal-fired plants in Colorado because of health and environmental risks.

State-level renewable portfolio standards (RPS) are also forcing utilities to diversify into cleaner power sources and biomass energy is a great way to produce base-load energy, something intermittent power sources like wind have difficulty doing. Wisconsin’s RPS requires that 10 percent of its power come from renewable sources by 2015. Xcel hopes the conversion of the Bay Front plant will be completed by 2012.

Federal incentives could also help push for more biomass power. The production tax credit was modified to included open- and closed-loop biomass power, allowing for plants like the Bay Front facility to collect tax credits on electricity produced. The changes won’t help, though, unless the credits are renewed.

The DOE’s Energy Information Association estimates that between 2000 and 2006 energy generated from biomass increased from 3,591 MW to 7,858 MW (not including cogeneration plants at paper and pulping facilities). Xcel owns and operates three other biomass-powered plants totaling 67 megawatts of capacity, and has active contracts for biomass-based electricity through a number of power purchase agreements.

Image courtesy of Xcel Energy.