TCL&P votes yes on biomass plant

By Lisa Gibson
Posted April 21, 2010, at 2:44 p.m. CST

Traverse City, Mich., could be the home of a 10 megawatt combined-heat-and-power biomass facility, following an April 21 vote by the Traverse City Light & Power board to move ahead with the project.

After about five years of research and debate, the company has decided it will develop plans for the facility, expected to consume about 100,000 tons of wood chips annually from clean forestry residues and other biomass products such as pallets. The plant will not utilize construction and demolition debris, or anything else that has been treated or painted, according to Jim Cooper, TCL&P key accounts and marketing manager. No timeline for construction or operation has been established, as TCL&P has not yet begun designing the facility. Costs have not been determined either, but estimates show it could be about $40 million, depending on design and engineering, Cooper said.

Four separate studies by the Department of Natural Resources and individual forestry experts have determined that there is plenty of woody biomass available to support the project, Cooper said.

As is the case with most recent biomass project proposals, TCL&P has faced vocal opposition to its plans, but results of a recent random telephone survey suggest opponents remain in the minority of the company's customers. Services of Northwestern Michigan College found that customers are either "very supportive" or "somewhat supportive" by more than a two-to-one margin. About 755 customers were surveyed between March 23 and April 8, with an overall margin of error for residential as well as commercial customers of less than 5 percent. TCL&P serves 11,000 customers and 80 percent of its load is made up of businesses.

The opposition, albeit marginal, has impacted the TCL&P board's decision-making process regarding the plant. "That's a reason why it's taken a while to come to a conclusion," Cooper said. TCL&P used some of that time to study alternative sources of power, but determined biomass would produce the lowest electric rates for its customers and allow the highest efficiency for the facility, at about 75 to 80 percent, according to Cooper. The plant would also mean locally generated electricity, lower greenhouse gas emissions, local investment and job creation, he added.