From the Lufkin Daily News


Is there power in the wood? Company that wants to build biomass power plant in North Lufkin will try again today for zone change

By CHRISTINE S. DIAMOND
The Lufkin Daily News

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A local businessman hopes to open a power plant in North Lufkin that would use a fuel that's in no short supply in East Texas: wood.

"Lufkin just happens to be right in the middle of the southern pine belt," said Danny Vines, president of Aspen Power LLC. "Within a 60-mile radius of Lufkin there are over 78 different wood processing facilities — which will be one of our supplies for our plant."

What's more, Vines claimed, people in Lufkin would neither see emissions from the plant nor hear its boiler.

Vines is scheduled to ask the Lufkin Planning and Zoning Commission, during its meeting at 5 p.m. today at city hall, to grant a zone change for 10 of 67 acres on Kurth Drive — the proposed site of the 45-megawatt power plant.

Fifty-seven of the acres are already zoned heavy industrial; Vines wants the commission and city council to change the zoning of the other 10 acres, which are currently zoned residential. No one lives within that area, where Vines intends to pave a parking lot, he said.

"It is a dirt pit that Loggins and Son had hauled select fill out of," he said.

Odis Rhodes, a P&Z commissioner, expressed concern over the proposed zone change when it came up at the panel's last meeting.

"There are quite a few houses in the area around here," Rhodes said in the meeting. "If you're talking about heavy industry, there'll be all kinds of stuff. Is it appropriate to zone that heavy industry?"

And one resident of Ridgewood Street, Myrtle Ferguson Kennedy, complained to the commission in a letter about the proposed change.

"I oppose because we already have a chemical facility near our residences and we don't need or want any other businesses that may produce contaminants," Kennedy wrote.

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'Green power'

Burning wood waste, or biomass, to produce energy is considered "green power" because, Vines said, it won't release anywhere near the volume of pollutants — like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and mercury — released by East Texas' current power plants.

Not all biomass plants are equal, according to Vines, who said he has toured several plants in Europe and the United States. Texas currently has no power plants that use wood waste as fuel, although another company is planning to build one in Nacogdoches County.

Vines said the Lufkin plant would be designed after a biomass plant in St. Paul, Minn.

"It is in the downtown dinner district of St. Paul. There is an open-air dining area across the road from the plant. I had lunch there and you cannot hear, smell or see anything. There is no smoke coming out of the stack. There is no noise," Vines said. "It blends in with the environment."

District Energy constructed the St. Paul plant in 2002, he said.

"It was the cleanest, quietest and best engineered plant that we

toured," he said.

Vines said he anticipates the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality finalizing the proposed Lufkin plant's air permit within several months.

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Why Lufkin?

Vines said he chose Lufkin as the site of the proposed plant because of its proximity to the fuel source.

This 100-percent wood-fired plant would need a daily diet of 1,500 tons of wood, Vines said. That equates to 56 truckloads of wood waste per day, he said.

Although the proposed site is situated near a railway, wood waste would be delivered by trucks only, he said.

Aspen Power plans to tap four wood-waste sources, the primary one being logging waste, which includes the crown, limbs and diseased or damaged trees left behind. In addition to private timber land, Aspen Power LP would have access to wood waste at timber stands managed by Stephen F. Austin State University forestry students, Vines said.

According to the Texas Forest Service 2006 annual report, Vines said, there was 109 million cubic feet of logging debris last year in East Texas. That amounts to 8,900 tons per day more than Aspen Power could consume, he said.

The complany's planned secondary source of wood waste — wood production mills — produces 4,000 tons of waste per day, he said. The other two sources both stem from land-clearing debris.

Fuel would not come, Vines said, from trees grown specifically for the power plant.

"We are in no way looking to acquire any of the Temple land base," Vines said.

He said the company is working out agreeements with Nacogdoches, Lufkin and their respective counties to dispose of debris waste at collection lots scattered around the two counties. Landowners would be able to dispose of their vegetative debris at these locations for free, he said.

That could keep an enormous amount of vegetative debris from filling up limited space at the Angelina County landfill, especially as the city of Lufkin has stopped its mulching program, Vines said.

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Costs

This wood-fired power plant would cost an estimated $84 million to start up, Vines said. More than half of that would be paid off through low-interest bonds, he said.

The waste-to-clean energy concept allowed Aspen Power LP to compete for the state bonds through the sponsorship of the Angelina Neches River Authority. And when the state comptroller's office awarded the bonds, lottery-style, Aspen Power LP lucked out, Vines said.

"Fifty-three million (dollars) in bonds. That's the largest bond offering ANRA has ever handled," Vines said.

A company from Louisiana would build the boiler onsite, Vines said. And once in operation, he said, the plant would employ an estimated 60 full-time employees. Vines projected that the operation would spur an additional 350-400 auxiliary jobs throughout East Texas.

The plant would provide power to the grid 300 days a year and hopefully bring down the cost of electricity for Lufkin-area energy customers, Vines said. Whether electric bills really would go down after the plant is operational is "the million-dollar question," Vines said.

"This is a very, very complex but interesting project," he said. "It is the largest single project I have ever been involved in. I have poured a tremendous amount of time into this project."

Ultimately, it would be good for the Lufkin tax base, Vines said. And it would be good for wildlife and people exposed to fire and smoke from controlled debris burns or resulting wildfires, he said.

Wood-fired biomass power plants are the cleanest source of energy after nuclear energy, Vines said.

Another East Texas company, Nacogdoches Power, has secured the necessary state air permits to construct a power plant in northwestern Nacogdoches County. A company official has said the plant, which would be powered by both wood waste and natural gas, could cost between $500 million and $600 million and would take an estimated 30 months to build. Construction on that plant may begin in June.