Plant Mitchell moves toward biomass fuel

Photo by Terry Lewis

Photo by Terry Lewis

ALBANY, Ga. -- With coal-fired power plants coming under increasing scrutiny and becoming more expensive to operate because of new environmental laws, Georgia Power Co. Executive Vice President for External Affairs Craig Barrs said Monday that GPC's parent Southern Company is looking at ways to become more environmentally friendly while saving money at the same time.

"If you look at the way we generate power now, you'll see it comes from coal, nuclear and natural gas," Barrs said. "Fifty percent of the power we generate in the state comes from coal, just a sliver comes from renewable resources just as hydro and biomass.

"Our industry is facing attitudes in regard to coal-burning facilities. That is why we are looking at converting Plant Mitchell to biomass generation."

The project would take advantage of currently unused waste from logging operations. That includes tree tops, limbs, forest residue and "low-value timber," which consists of trees that are thinned out.

Burning wood instead of coal will reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

Woody biomass is considered to be "carbon neutral," since it returns to the atmosphere the carbon dioxide that was absorbed as plants grew.

That carbon would be released at some point anyway -- meaning there is no net release of CO2 if the cycle of growth and harvest is sustained.

"When Plant Mitchell is converted, it will be the largest biomass power plant in the country," Barrs said. "At the moment we have a IBMACT (Industrial Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology ) request into the EPA to determine what kind and what size boilers we can have."

Converting to biomass from coal will not only reduce the plant's environmental impact, but also provide economic benefits to the company's customers.

Barrs said the project is currently in the application and permit phase, and if the "economics work out," the plant could be fully converted as early as 2013.

The Georgia Power executive added that the company is moving slowly because "the work we do is capital intensive."

"Every decision we make is a 60-year decision," Barrs said. "We can't afford to make many mistakes in planning because our customers will be paying for it for 60 years."