Green-minded seeing red over biomass plant
By David Markiewicz
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
2:59 p.m. Saturday, February 13, 2010
Ask people who live in the North DeKalb neighborhood along Briarwood Road if they consider themselves green friendly, and the answer likely is yes.
The surrounding area, one resident noted, has the highest participation in the county’s voluntary recycling program. There’s even a local REI store, known for its earth-embracing vibe.
The idea of promoting alternative energy development by building a biomass-fueled electricity generating plant nearby might seem like something they would support.
They do – as long as it’s not in their backyard.
The plant, proposed for a Briarwood Road site by developer Raine Cotton of Southeast Renewable Energy, would take unwanted waste wood from tree trimming and clearing operations and convert it into electricity through a gasification process. It would power 6,000 homes.
Opponents contend it would pollute the air, increase truck traffic in the neighborhood near I-85, raise noise levels and use large amounts of water.
All indications are that community opposition will cause Cotton to take his $23 million biomass project elsewhere. The project, which needed rezoning from industrial to heavy industrial use, was rejected by the local community council and county planning commission. DeKalb County commissioners deferred a final decision on the site until later this month.
Last week, Cotton said he is considering two heavily industrialized sites in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties instead.
Biomass is a renewable energy source that can come from multiple sources, including trees. Advocates say the use of biomass fuels can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that emerge from the burning of coal to make electricity.
The Briarwood Road experience could be a sign, observers said, that renewable energy projects, for all the benefits they bring in energy and jobs, won’t have an easy time finding a home in densely populated areas. That could push them to more remote locations where they might meet less public opposition.
Similar projects often are planned outside metropolitan areas, where they “have a little bit harder road than in rural areas,” said Jill Stuckey, director of the Center of Innovation for Energy with the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority.
Stuckey, who helps companies find sites for renewable energy or alternative fuel production facilities in the state, pointed to a biomass electricity generating plant in Rabun Gap as an example.
Still, she said, some projects now in the development pipeline could be targeting more urban locations. The Briarwood Road project might give them pause.
Bill Draper, one of the public opponents of the proposal, said it was the specific aspects of Cotton’s project, particularly the pollution potential, that bothered him.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but I support renewable energy,” Draper said. “Everybody says, ‘Great, let’s get this in here.’ But when I did some research, it wasn’t as clean as you’d think renewable energy would be. I don’t want to be the guy who stands up and says you can’t have this at all. But when you’ve got a populated area and something that’s environmentally unfriendly, you’re going to have a problem. It’s a good application in exactly the wrong place.”
“I didn’t hear a lot of people saying that, in general, the idea of this plant was a bad idea,” added Katie Oehler, who lives a mile from the proposed site and serves on the Drew Valley Civic Association that covers 950 homes. “[But] plopping it down in the middle of a residential area probably is not the best idea.”
“We do need green energy facilities,” said County Commissioner Jeff Rader, whose district holds the proposed site. “And the people who live in that district, I think, are generally supportive of green power. But all the recommendations were adverse to the project. There could be some places in DeKalb County that would be more appropriate.”
Cotton said residents’ concerns were overblown. There would be no smoke or smell from the plant, he said, because of pollution control equipment. In the biomass gasification process, wood is heated with air in a chamber until it breaks down into a gas, which can be used as a fuel to produce electricity.
“We’ve gotten some NIMBY, and it’s totally unwarranted,” he said, using the “not in my backyard” acronym. “You can always find something.”
Still, Cotton said, “We see the writing on the wall.”
Now he’s looking for a more accommodating site, one that’s close to the sources of waste wood that must be trucked to the plant, and near enough to power transmission lines to allow electricity to be carried more efficiently.
Cotton said he’s heard more support than opposition to his project, which would provide 15 jobs.