Study begins for proposed energy plant in Clarion area

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CLARION - Researchers said Monday a proposed new energy generation plant in the Clarion area would benefit wood suppliers as well as consumers of the produced energy.

Achim Loewen, director of the Fraunhofer USA Center for Energy and Environment in Pittsburgh, said a study to determine the feasibility of the project is in the early stages.

The center plans to investigate the possibilities of energy generation based on gasification of residual wood in the Clarion community and surrounding area.

Loewen said the findings of the assessment will result in a basic concept for an energy generation plant that is both economically feasible and environmentally friendly.

Gasification is high temperature conversion of solid fuels into flammable gas.

Uses of produced gas include direct heating of dryers, furnaces and kilns, hot water and steam generation, and electricity generation (gas motor, gas turbine and fuel cell).

Fraunhofer is partnering with the University of Pittsburgh and the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology.

It is also receiving funding from the state DEP to research the plan.

"We think this technology is better than existing plants," Loewen said.

If it is determined the project is economically feasible, the director said, it would be the first such plant in Pennsylvania.

There are other gasification plants operating in the United States, he said, and cited one in Vermont as an example.

Loewen said Fraunhofer has held a preliminary meeting in Meadville concerning a general energy supply concept that is similar to the gasification project. He said they have visited some potential sites for that plan.

At this time, no potential locations in Clarion County have been found, the director said.

Officials said they are looking at the Clarion area for several reasons.

The community has shown an interest in energy generation from renewables and there is support for the plan from the Piney Creek power plant, Loewen said.

He also said residual wood is available in the region and there are possible consumers for produced energy.

Loewen said the plant would not use treated wood, and the goal is not to cut the Allegheny National Forest.

Fuels suitable for the project include sawdust and chips, wood pellets, bark and hemp.

A visitor at the meeting said there are concerns the plant would begin burning treated wood at some point.

Loewen said the plant would be designed for clean wood only, and treated wood would damage the motor.

The director responded to another man's suggestion that the use of fuel cells would be a better alternative for the plant.

Loewen said the proposed gasification plant is based on economic feasibility.

Fuels cells are very expensive, he said, and it could take 10 to 20 years to develop that type of project.

Officials say establishing the proposed energy plant could take two years or more.

No specific information regarding the size or cost of the plant was discussed.

"The study will give all the answers," Loewen said.

The first phase of the project involves collecting general data such as energy prices and price structures, availability and prices of pulpwood, transportation costs, funding opportunities and tax incentives.

Another man at the meeting asked the director about studies claiming the state's forest growth is declining.

Richard Wiles, an aide for U.S. Congressman John Peterson, disputed the information and said he has seen studies saying the forests are undercut.

He then spoke out against the county's "small faction of extreme environmentalists" who are for "zero cut" in the forests.

Wiles said Peterson is particularly interested in seeing the plan move forward as a potential boost to the economy after the International Paper mill closed in Erie.

Loewen said the study will take about six months to complete.

It will then be placed on the DEP's Web site.

Ecological benefits of gasification compared to conventional combustion were identified as using unused residual wood resources due to economic advantages, lower emissions and higher efficiency.

Such a plant could significantly reduce the energy consumer's operational costs, researchers say. Also, by replacing fossil fuels, the demand for foreign imported fossil fuels would be decreased and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced.

Fraunhofer is a non-profit research center located at the University of Pittsburgh that develops concepts and technologies for the economic and environmentally beneficial energy generation from renewables.