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Xcel Proposes Converting a Power Plant to All Biomass

March 10, 2009

On February 23rd, Xcel Energy announced plans to completely convert its Bay Front power plant, located in Ashland, Wisconsin, from coal to waste biomass.  Currently two of the three boilers at the plant burn a mix of coal and forest waste.  This proposal would update the third boiler to be able to burn woody biomass and get the plant completely off of coal, making it the largest biomass power plant in the Midwest.  Xcel has acknowledged the conversion would push their biomass collection process to its cost-effective limits. 

To address this issue, Xcel has proposed a plan of converting old farmland in the region, once converted from woodland, back to woodlands to increase fuel supply.  They also hope this program would provide more stable income streams for existing landowners.  So far, so good.  However, in order for Xcel to fully achieve the true intentions of converting to renewable sources of energy, this plan must consider sustainability, not just fuel type.  It does no good to convert to biomass, however well-intentioned, only to over commit and unsustainably draw down our natural resources or the land’s capacity to provide in the future. 

The best measure Xcel leaders can take at this juncture to ensure their project achieves its well-intentioned results without the potential negative consequences is to establish sustainability requirements on its fuel.  Such requirements would require landowners seeking to sell forest products to Xcel to conduct simple forest land management and product harvesting analyses.  The Forest Stewardship Council has established such processes to achieve sustainability certification and would be easily implemented for the specific products desired by Xcel to fuel the Bay Front power plant.  To be certain, Xcel is taking action to address a large problem and ought to be commended for doing so.  Let’s just be certain this solution to one problem does not create another problem down the road.

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