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Lack of information stalls biomass project

Stephanie Mlot
Frederick News-Post Staff

(3/11) The Board of Commissioners does not have sufficient information to decide about a proposed biomass plant.

"(The feasibility study) is a good initial cut, but it's certainly not enough information for you to make a decision," Joe Orlando said.

Orlando, director of the Mid-Atlantic Combined Heat and Power Application Center, and Jonathan Kays, regional extension specialist and University of Maryland faculty member, presented biomass and woody waste details to the board Monday.

Moving to the next level of analysis would require a projected $20,000 engineering study of technologies available for the plant, Orlando said.

"Twenty grand for the next phase is a no-brainer," Commissioner Glenn Muth said.

Mayor Martin Burns agreed.

"From my perspective, $20,000 is not a significant investment, when we have spent nothing out of our pocket to date to try to get us to a point where we can make a rational decision where we may be able to save our residents a lot of money."

Burns said officials will decide about the study in the coming months, during budget time. "It may be, 'Hey, we don't have (the money),'" he said. "It may be, 'Hey, let's do an interfund transfer.'"

Along with woody waste, the biomass plant likely would use heat and power co-produced from the same source, Kays said.

"If not used for something else, it becomes wasted," he said. "If you really don't find a use for that extra heat, it's a fairly inefficient system."

The efficiency of the plant using wood only is 45 percent, Orlando said. Steam and hot water raise it to 70 percent to 80 percent.

"You've got two things going for you," Orlando said.

Not using fossil fuel or natural gas will save money.

"Wood is a commodity where the buyer essentially controls the market," he said.

If the town uses the thermal energy produced by the heat and power, the plant will be more cost-effective.

There are two things the board needs to know, Orlando said. One is the cost of fuel, the operating cost. The other is the cost of electricity the town buys to run the system.

"These plants pay for themselves," Orlando said. "They make money, and they give you price stability."

The Department of Energy announced plans March 3 for grants to municipalities and municipal utilities for construction of efficient energy technology and combined heat and power systems.

Orlando said the total funds will be between $2 million and $8 million, spread over 50 states for "shovel-ready" projects.

The department is looking for a commitment to move ahead with projects, Orlando said.

"What I'm seeing is that you're probably not prepared to make that commitment, because there's not enough information in the report I saw," he said.

Still, officials want to move forward.

"There are none of us up here that doesn't think it's an intriguing idea to explore," Burns said.

"I can say for myself there wasn't enough granularities to give me confidence that yeah, let's spend $70 million, let's bite the bullet. We need to know how it's going to get here and how much is available. We are still working toward that goal."

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