Monday, January 21, 2008


Estancia biomass plant will emit nitrogen oxides (smog) at a rate that is 53% of a typical coal fired plant along with 700 tons of toxic pollutants including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and a host of hazardous and toxic pollutants - yet the state calls this clean low-emissions comparable to solar and wind.

The Renewable Energy Act (REA) [1]defines "renewable" as energy generated by solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass [Section 3-D-(2)]. Since the general public, including government officials, equate “renewable” with “clean”, this leaves the false impression that biomass is a clean energy alternative similar to solar and wind.

This belief is reinforced by a provision in the REA that states that “renewable energy means electric energy generated by the use of low- or zero-emissions generation technology” [Section 3- D-(1)]. The problem is there is no quantified standard defining “low emissions”. As a result, the Air Quality Bureau of the Environment Department simply regulates biomass under the same guidelines as a typical coal fired plant. Further, since there is no quantified standard defining low emissions, there is no incentive for the biomass electric producers to use the best available technology.

This major loophole in the REA permits biomass power plants to be a “major source” of pollutants according to NM Air Quality Bureau standards and yet still be considered a low-emission polluter. Indeed, according to conversations with the NM Air Quality Bureau and the NM PRC, under current regulations biomass fuel fired electric generating plants can often pollute on the scale similar to average coal fired plant in the US.

Evidence: EPA's national emission tracking system estimates that an average coal fired plant in the US emits nitrogen oxides, the stuff of industrial pollution and acid rain, at a rate of 2.8 lbs per hour per megawatt of power [2]. A recently proposed biomass plant for Estancia valley in central New Mexico, if built, plans to emit nitrogen oxides at a rate of 1.5 lbs per hour per megawatt [3]. This is a rate over 53% of a typical coal fired plant. The Estancia plant plans to emit over 230 tons per year of nitrogen oxides which are 320 times more potent a greenhouse polluter than CO2 [4]. The plant also plans to emit 220 tons of carbon monoxide and hundreds of tons of other pollutants like sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, hazardous and toxic air pollutants like mercury, ammonia and formaldehyde and a range of small particulates. Indeed, the mercury emission rate of the proposed Estancia biomass plant [3] is estimated to be more than 15 times that of the San Juan generating station [5]. This is certainly not low emissions and defies to spirit of clean renewable energy.

This problem is not unique to New Mexico. The meaningless "zero to low emission" qualification can also be found in other state renewable energy acts.

Without a numeric standard, biomass electric producers have no incentive to install more costly pollution controls. The proposed Estancia plant appears to be designed to be just under the 250 tons per year threshold where stricter pollution controls would be required according to the NM Air Quality Bureau. In effect biomass producers are allowed to produce the highest rate of pollution at the least cost. And you can blame them because they want to minimize costs and maximize profits.

This is a regulatory issue. True low emission technologies are available that would greatly reduce emissions from biomass generating plants. The “low-emission” qualification in the REA simply needs to be quantified if it is to have any meaning.

In short, biomass should either be taken out of the Renewable Energy Act because it is a major source of air pollution or a low emission standard should be quantified requiring biomass electric producers to actually abide by a low-emission standard. In this way the spirit of a clean renewable energy program will remain intact in New Mexico and not subject to abuse, deception and public misperception.

[3] Western Water and Power Production, LLC, Estancia Basin Biomass Facility, Permit Application, 20.2.72 NMAC, Air Quality Bureau, Santa Fe, NM

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