Biomass project to reduce landfill burden

Waste wood currently going into landfills or left in mountain-high piles to rot soon will become a cleaner source of fuel for making electricity.

Much of the basic research already is done. Savannah Electric, a Southern Company subsidiary, and Fiber Fuel International, a consulting firm, have successfully mixed pulverized wood and coal in a boiler at Savannah’s Plant Kraft. The challenge now is to begin processing scrap wood for burning on a large scale, so the wood-coal mixture can burn continuously when electricity is in high demand.

The use of wood has several advantages. First, there’s less pollution -- wood when burned releases far less nitrogen oxide, a component of acid rain, than coal. Second, the need to put the scrap wood into landfills is eliminated. The Southern Company will be able to dispose of its own waste wood, mostly tree trimmings and old utility poles.

There’s also an economic advantage for the use of scrap wood at Plant Kraft and, eventually, at some other plants. Currently it’s too expensive to move coal to some plants on a regular basis; instead, those plants are used as "peaking" plants, meaning they run when demand for electricity is at its highest, usually in the summer. Wood waste appears to be abundant near some of these plants, however, and could make it cost-effective to run them on a regular basis.

"This is ideal. We can get both environmental and economic benefits from this project," said Bob Woodall, Southern Company’s vice president of environmental policy. "It benefits the consumer in every way."

Initial tests run a year ago proved highly successful. The wood used in the three-day test came from 5,500 pallets left by ships docking in Savannah. The pallets weren’t the standard size used in the United States, and therefore could not be re-used. The boiler at one point consumed 17 tons of wood an hour.

Claude Galipeault, president of Fiber Fuel, thinks there will be no shortage of waste wood. In addition to Southern Company and shipping sources, he points to the industries in Georgia producing waste wood -- in particular, the nearby pulp and paper industries. His company’s surveys show more than 1.3 million tons of waste wood per year is produced within 150 miles of Savannah.

Larry Staab, Fiber Fuel vice president and the project’s manager, is seeking a site for a wood yard near Plant Kraft that at first will be able to dry and pulverize 30,000 tons of wood a year, with the goal of firing wood during the entire 1996 peak season. Eventually, the wood yard will have to process 600,000 tons a year.

Tommy Loggins, chief of forest products utilization, marketing and development for the Georgia Forestry Commission, likes the project both for the waste wood it will eliminate from landfills and the positive effects it will have on forestry management.

Loggins explains that landowners who harvest trees from their property often have to delay replanting because of the costs of disposing waste wood left behind during the tree-cutting process. If wood waste becomes a common fuel source, disposal costs will drop dramatically, since so-called "tipping fees" for leaving such waste will be much lower at a power plant wood yard than at a landfill. Landowners then will be able to replant more quickly.

"It has such a positive effect on forest production," Loggins says.

The Southern Company (NYSE:SO) is the parent firm of five electric utilities: Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Mississippi Power, and Savannah Electric. Other subsidiaries include Southern Electric International, Southern Nuclear, and Southern Company Services. The Southern Company’s common stock is one of the 20 most widely held corporate stocks in America.