Biomass Project Building Up Steam

Smethport Web — by Nathan Muller

The Smethport Woody Biomass Demonstration Project is on course to identify a qualified person to do the feasibility study that will lead to a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facility for the area. Earlier this month, the project team issued a Request for Qualifications to 65 companies, plus international associations in Canada and Europe that distributed the document to their members.

According to Ross Porter, co-chairman of the Smethport Woody Biomass Leadership Team (SWBLT), “Responses from world class people are being received — some with 10 and 20 years of experience are applying for the position.”   

A committee will screen the applicants against a standard criteria. It is anticipated that the initial screening effort will result in a short-list group of 3 to 5 contractors, with the winner expected to provide the Borough with financial, marketing and cost/benefit analyses for the CHP project, including estimates for the design and installation of the additional district heating components for a separate water infrastructure. Following the recommendation of the Smethport Woody Biomass Project team’s selection committee, the Borough will move expeditiously to secure an agreement with the preferred contractor.

Meanwhile, many Smethport residents have been asking questions about the CHP project. The SWBLT has put together answers to the most frequently asked questions.

Will we have a choice to be hooked up or not to the district heating system?

Yes. Each residence and building owner will have a choice whether to get hooked up not to the district heating system. Of course, it will potentially cost more to get hooked later.

Will the wood smoke be an air-quality problem?

Automated, commercial-sized woodchip and pellet systems burn much cleaner than even the most modern home wood or pellet stove. They produce no creosote and practically no visual smoke or odor. Because the biomass fuel is green, or close to 50 percent water, however, in cold weather the chimney may show a plume of condensed water vapor. Interviews with dozens of system operators support the conclusion that odor generated by the fuel or the smoke is almost never a problem, and in most cases, both chip and pellet systems easily meet state air quality standards.

Will the system produce airborne wood ash that will fall over the neighborhood?

No. A well-designed woodchip system burns at a high rate of efficiency, resulting in a small percentage of residual ash (about one percent of the original fuel volume). In addition, these systems require specific stack (chimney) heights that effectively disperse any emissions into the prevailing winds. Biomass Energy Resource Center has not heard of this reported as a problem in the neighborhoods of institutional and commercial woodchip burners.

If the CHP plant needs to shut down temporarily for any reason, how will heat be provided?

As part of the feasibility study it will be determined what redundancy features can be built into the district heating system for uninterrupted operation. Ultimately, users would rely on their secondary fuel source for heat, such as coal, natural gas, or wood.