Monday, November 05, 2007

Gasification plan evokes memories of the past


WISCASSET — Although Maine Yankee closed down almost 10 years ago, it still casts a long shadow over this town. That shadow has become even darker since a proposal by Point East for a coal gasification energy plant was dropped in selectmen's laps last July, sparking a sometimes contentious debate among Wiscasset residents and neighbors in outlying towns over whether such a plant is a good idea.

On Tuesday, Wiscasset residents will vote on four articles crafted specifically to allow Twin River Energy Center a foot in the door toward building a co-generation plant that they say will produce 700 megawatts of electricity and 9,000 barrels of clean diesel fuel daily, while at the same time creating 200 high-paying jobs and about 80 percent of the town's property taxes.

It has taken years for the town to adjust to Maine Yankee's absence, and now comes along a proposal holding out the promise of another pot of gold.

For many residents of the area, that promise sounds familiar. Maine Yankee promised it would find a way to dispose of spent fuel waste. That waste, 64 concrete and lead casks full, sits behind an earthen mound on site until the federal government finds a place for it. Opponents to Twin River fear the same will happen with the new proposal — that promises made won't be kept. Like a suitor burned once, area residents are skeptical despite reassurance from the plan's proponents.

The details

The zoning ordinance on the ballot will increase the height limit of buildings from 60 feet to 230 feet. The new height limit will apply only to the specific parcel of former Maine Yankee-owned land where Twin River Energy Center will be built.

The plant's developers would still face two years of the permitting process before breaking ground, but opponents like Steve Hinchman, of the Conservation Law Foundation, say it is important to let the developers know if the town isn't interested.

"It'll be a lose-lose situation for Wiscasset if it votes in the ordinance changes," Hinchman said. "Because Point East will drop its efforts at their Maritime Village project to focus on this gasification plan."

But Wiscasset former Selectman Katharine Martin-Savage disagrees.

"I've done my homework," she says. "This would be a good thing for Wiscasset. There would be a trickle-down effect. More businesses would come to town. The R & D center they propose will inspire our kids to go into science, to stay and work in town. I say, give them a shot at it. They have two years just to get through the permitting process, plenty of time for the townspeople's input."

She says one of the factors in her decision to support the proposal is the price of imported oil.

"It's up to over $90 a barrel," she says. "A plant like this one, using domestic fuel, coal and biomass, is a step in the right direction."

How gasification works
The main premise of coal gasification is that it uses coal to produce electricity without releasing as many of the pollutants created when coal is burned. Instead of burning the coal directly to make steam to run the turbines, coal gasification turns coal into synergy gas by a chemical reaction under extreme heat and pressure, in the presence of steam and a controlled amount of oxygen. The result is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, called "synthesis" or "syngas."

The syngas is then cleaned and mixed with oxygen, then ignited in a gas turbine which drives the electric generator. Byproducts of the chemical reaction include carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and amounts of mercury, arsenic, cadmium and selenium, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

In addition to electricity, the process also produces hydrogen and diesel fuel that is cleaner burning than petroleum-based diesel.

Gasification technology has been around since the 1920s, but it wasn't until the price of crude oil took off that gasification became feasible economically.

One advantage of the process over traditional burning of coal is flexibility. Syngas can be produced using anything containing carbon, such as biomass from forest waste, municipal waste or coal.

Another advantage is the ability to produce fuels other than electricity. Such flexibility adds to the economic efficiency of gasification, say its proponents.

In its issue summary of the gasification process as proposed by Twin River Energy, Environment Northeast states that gasification "offers inherent advantages with respect to pollution control." The process results in "very low air emissions" of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, a key culprit in acid rain, nitrogen oxide, a key ingredient in smog, and mercury.

Project director Scott Houldin said the mercury byproduct of the proposed plant would amount to a yearly total of 22 pounds. Currently, Maine allows 25 pounds of mercury to be emitted from any one site, which represent the most stringent regulations in the country according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Large carbon footprint
What the gasification process does add too much of to the atmosphere is carbon dioxide. Although not as much of a health risk as sulfur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, the primary culprit in global climate change.

Much of the opposition to the plant has been focused on its large carbon footprint, especially in light of Maine's Climate Action Plan, which seeks to reduce the state's overall emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by 2010, 10 percent below those levels in 2020 and by a sufficient amount to avert the threat of global warming over the long term.

"This will be a step backward in our attempts to lower greenhouse gasses," said Hinchman of the Conservation Law Foundation at a recent public information meeting.

His views were echoed by Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"We have concluded that this massive coal plant, if built, would result in a giant step backward for Maine's environment and our way of life," Voorhees said at an Oct. 18 press conference announcing the NRCM's opposition to the plant.

"It would result in increased mercury pollution and global warming pollution," he said.

Proponents of the proposed plant cite the relatively clean nature of the technology and the fact that the state regulatory process is pretty stringent. But even those enamored of the technology admit that the carbon dioxide emissions pose a problem.

Daniel Sosland is director of Environment Northeast, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Rockland which advocates for sustainable solutions to global warming. His organization published an issue summary on the proposed plant in Wiscasset.

"I think the bottom line is that coal gasification with carbon sequestration can meet the goals we advocate, basically that carbon dioxide emissions are kept at or below that of a natural gas-powered plant, the cleanest fossil fuel used," Sosland said. "The problem is where are you going to store the carbon?"

Sosland said the gasification process works well in the Midwest, but in Maine and New England, the rocky geology presents problems.

"It's a viable system, but you have to find a place for the carbon dioxide," he said. "That's actually a state and global problem."

That view was echoed last week at a seminar on carbon capture and storage, which included experts from such institutions as MIT, Harvard and the federal Department of Energy. Since CSS requires carbon to be stored underground, in old oil wells or the right kind of geologic formation, the panel of experts concluded that carbon storage was not conducive to Maine's geology.

Houldin counters arguments from opponents that the proposed plant will double Maine's carbon footprint by citing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that will cap all carbon dioxide emissions. Houldin says Twin River Energy Center will be required to purchase offsets that will displace other emitters of carbon dioxide.

"In addition to this cap-and-trade system," he says, "the Twin River's price of electricity will displace older and dirtier power plants, thus reducing total carbon dioxide. While coal is in fact carbon intensive, the gasification co-production process provides tremendous efficiencies."

Other issues relating to the Twin River plant include:

* The use of sea-going barges to bring tons of coal to the proposed plant will negatively affect the fishing and lobster industry, opponents say. During a "parade of opposition" to the proposed plant carried out by lobstermen from the North End Lobster Co-op, much was made of the fact that a weekly barge coming up the Sheepscot River would turn the river into a "barge canal" and wipe out the fishing industry.

Houldin counters that barge traffic and fishing has coexisted on the Sheepscot before, when the former Mason Station burned coal to make electricity. He added that the state permitting process considers the economic and environmental impact on local fishing.

* The proposed plant will use millions of gallons of water every day, impacting local water supplies. But Houldin said no final decision has been made, pending engineering studies, and the plant could use a percentage of brackish water to reduce its use of fresh water.

* As proposed, the gasification process at Twin River would emit about 22 pounds of mercury a year. That's too much for opponents of the proposed plant, who cite the health effects of even small amounts of mercury, especially on children. But 22 pounds annually is still within regulatory guidelines, which have dropped from 100 pounds allowed per year in 2000 to 25 pounds per year by 2010. Maine's mercury regulations are more stringent than the federal Environmental

Protection Agency.
Another issue for Wiscasset voters may be a matter of trust. Residents have been burned before when Maine Yankee promised to find a place or a method of disposing the spent fuel rods if the voters would just go ahead and allow them to build. Yet the spent fuel sits behind an earthen berm, packed in thick lead and concrete containers while the federal government dawdles.

Could it happen again?
Katharine Martin-Savage, a supporter, wants to give Twin River a chance to prove its critics wrong. The organized opposition would like to see its proposal fail at the polls now rather than for the long review process to begin at all.

Wiscasset voters will decide Tuesday, when polls open at the Community Center at 10 a.m.

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