MU, Sierra Club at odds on plans to burn wood instead of coal

Thursday, November 18, 2010 | 7:20 p.m. CST; updated 9:43 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 18, 2010
Paul Rolfe, president of Coal Free Mizzou, adjusts student-made pinwheels on MU’s Carnahan Quad as part of a national movement calling for clean energy on Thursday. Coal Free Mizzou is a campus organization that promotes new forms of renewable energies.

COLUMBIA – Is brown the new green?

The Osage Group of the Sierra Club says no.

The environmental group called Wednesday for a general moratorium on burning woody biomass and raised questions about MU's plans to replace coal with wood in a $62 million boiler at the campus power plant that's expected to be operational next fall.

The MU Power Plant currently has four boilers that burn coal, tire-derived fuel and biomass and one boiler that burns natural gas, said Karlan Seville, communications manager for campus facilities.

Hank Stelzer, associate professor of forestry at MU, said the new boiler will use a combination of biomass; 80 percent will come from woody biomass and 20 percent will come from other plant material, such as switchgrass and corn cobs.

“We don’t want to have a system that’s not sustainable,” he said.

While the Osage Group supports MU’s move away from burning coal, it does not believe that wood is the best transitional fuel.

Ken Midkiff, conservation chair for the Osage Group, prefers natural gas because it's clear that gas emits less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than coal, while it is not yet clear how biomass emissions compare. He raised three concerns:

  • The potential release of more carbon dioxide from the burning of woody biomass than is expended from coal burning.
  • The availability of woody biomass.
  • The sustainability of wood harvest.

Midkiff said the key question is whether forests can recover fast enough to make wood burning carbon-neutral.

Stelzer said the entire life of a forest must be considered in this discussion. “The trees will take up as much, if not more carbon over the life of a forest,” said Stelzer, who is collaborating with the power plant.

“We love that they’re replacing a coal boiler,” said Paul Rolfe, president of Coal Free Mizzou. “We want to see more changes like that in the future.”

Rolfe said he’d rather have the issues that come with biomass burning than the issues that come with burning coal.

“Coal is so destructive in its process, from mining to burning to waste,” he said.

About 15 students gathered Thursday afternoon at Carnahan Quadrangle as part of Coal Free Mizzou's call for MU to move beyond coal and toward clean energy. The event featured speeches from two MU sociology professors: Larry Brown and Rebecca Scott.

“There’s no get out of jail free card when it comes to energy,” said Scott, who has published a book about mountaintop coal removal.

Brown said now is the time to increase the pace of this movement.

“We are beyond coal,” he said at the event.

The power plant's change to biomass is intended to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, Seville said. She said the MU boiler will be more efficient because of the plant's use of waste heat in the form of steam for heating and cooling.

The change will reduce the amount of coal that’s being consumed by the power plant, Stelzer said. The $5 million savings can then be applied to buying local biomass.

The power plant purchases its coal from Illinois and other states. Seville outlined two main benefits of the new biomass burning boiler:

  • The biomass boiler will save on fuel costs, as well as lower the plant’s truck emissions, because the biomass would be collected from within a 70- to 75-mile radius of Columbia, as opposed to traveling outside the state for coal.
  • Acquiring the biomass within mid-Missouri would help simulate the local economy.

The new boiler will use 100,000 tons of wood per year, Seville said. The woody biomass will consist of sawmill residue, urban wood waste and harvest residue from commercial timber harvests.

The wood for the biomass will come from forests that are being professionally managed and not clear-cutting operations, Stelzer said.

Stelzer said he hopes in the next five to 10 years for MU to produce some of its own wood for fuel with fast-growing hardwoods such as cottonwoods that are harvested every two to three years in short rotation.

“We need to be a leader that this can be done in a sustainable fashion,” said Stelzer, who said he believes doing so will be easier at the MU plant compared to other wood-burning power plants that are typically three times larger.

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Tyler Hutcherson November 19, 2010 | 10:52 p.m.

So proud of Mizzou for taking the initiative to go green! Now its time for more clean energy and to make Mizzou a national leader!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 20, 2010 | 5:50 a.m.

Apparently the laws governing combustion chemistry, and the simple chemical equations involved, get suspended when one crosses the Missouri River in Missouri while headed in a northerly direction.

All combustible fuel sources have measurable caloric contents, whether those sources are gaseous, liquid or solid. Some are higher or lower than others for the same amount of fuel burned.

So if we require a specified amount of kilo calories (or BTUs) we must be certain that enough fuel is burned to achieve that requirement.

The lower the caloric value of the fuel, THE MORE FUEL THAT HAS TO BE BURNED.

Now we come to the equation involving combustion of any fuel, which tells us that for a fuel we will have, upon combustion, carbon dioxide "greenhouse gas" as a product of combustion.


It could be that P. T. Barnum was a combustion engineer, but there most definitely is "a sucker born every minute."

(Report Comment)
Yves Montclear November 20, 2010 | 3:55 p.m.

Ellis, your comment makes too much sense to be posted on here. You do realize that?

I used to work for a company that did, and still, sells the 'slag' left over from petroleum (oil) processing, what is left after making gasoline and other products.

This 'slag' left, is sold to countries like Brazil and China, to burn for fuel in their power plants. Lot of money in it. It is called 'petcoke'.

You want to talk about the most possible disgusting thing you could burn, and put into the air, blown high into the atmosphere? Some gigantic molecules, when caught on the winds, for all the world to breathe and enjoy. And in the water.

It is sad that this 'slag' can be sold for a power plant fuel.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 20, 2010 | 4:38 p.m.

Um, I heat my house with "urban wood waste". Somehow it bothers me that I might be competing with MU for it. It's much more efficient to use it as primary heat than to convert it to electricity and have someone heat with that.

Not that I have anything particularly against biomass as fuel. We should heed Ellis Smith's comment above, however, and realize the wood has a lot less heating value than coal, so they're going to need a lot of wood.


(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 20, 2010 | 6:23 p.m.

Yves Montclair wrote:

"You want to talk about the most possible disgusting thing you could burn, and put into the air, blown high into the atmosphere?"

"Petcoke" is basically coal - carbon. If it is burned in an otherwise efficient boiler, the emissions will be no dirtier than a similar mass of coal.

Combustion alters the nature of the fuel tremendously. Virtually none of it is released to the atmosphere unchanged.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 20, 2010 | 6:31 p.m.

I doubt, Mark, that your home heating requirements will seriously impair those of University of Missouri System. :)

Large quantities (in the tens of millions) of building and paving bricks are produced in factories in the Southeastern United States, which also boasts many furniture factories. Years ago someone got the bright idea of taking planing mill sawdust, which is an eyesore, and making fuel out of it to burn when making bricks. The dust is a very nice size for combustion (plenty of surface area) and unless it has been first set outside in the weather, it is dry.

At first the dust "generator" was happy to GIVE away the dust, so long a the receiver paid the freight. Then, as the practice became more widespread, THE MILL OPERATORS DECIDED THAT MAYBE THEY SHOULD CHARGE SOMETHING FOR IT!

Isn't this a great country, folks?

The slickest thing I've seen lately in solid fuel combustion exists at a brick plant near Indianapolis. Three components: pulverized low-sulfur coal under pressure, pressurized preheated air, and a 7% addition of natural gas. Why the gas? Because even that small an amount does wonders for rapid and complete combustion of the coal-air mixture. On the other hand, the injection circuitry looks like something out of a bad science fiction movie! Kiln peak operating temperature is about 2,000 degrees F., normal for this class of ceramic.

(Report Comment)
Yves Montclear November 20, 2010 | 7:57 p.m.

Mark Foecking wrote:

**Combustion alters the nature of the fuel tremendously. Virtually none of it is released to the atmosphere unchanged.**

I don't believe that. And I surely don't want to depend upon 'virtually none'. There are huge molecules that escape the combustion, and make their way into the life 'eco' system.

Would you like me to show you? The data I have gathered?

Burning this crap is not good for anybody, or any living thing on the planet.

(Report Comment)
Yves Montclear November 20, 2010 | 8:21 p.m.

And, finally, let me point out, if 'petcoke' is such a great source, clean, efficient, fuel for a power plant, why don't we use it here in the United States?

Why is it shipped off to other countries? Why don't we use it here, in America?

You want to look at my data? It will tell you why.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 21, 2010 | 1:00 a.m.

Well, allow me to muddy up the water a bit more. There is also something called combustion stoichiometry. Some of us laughingly refer to it as "the Holy Grail* of combustion." When stoichiometric combustion occurs, ALL the fuel and ALL the combustion air are consumed and the atmosphere in the furnace or kiln is neither oxidizing nor reducing. In practice, burners are seldom set "stoichiometric," because numerous processes require at least a mildly oxidizing atmosphere and a few even require a reducing atmosphere. However, at really high operating kiln temperatures one must hold close to stoichiometric conditions just to achieve and maintain operating temperatures.

*-King Arthur fans will recall that the Grail was much sought after but seldom found. :)

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 21, 2010 | 4:09 a.m.

Yves Montclear wrote:

"You want to look at my data? It will tell you why."


Even very stable molecule4s like TCDD (dioxin) will burn under the right conditions. The key is maintaining the right conditions.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 21, 2010 | 5:41 a.m.

@ Yves Montclear:

I assume that you refer to petroleum coke. There is also metallurgical coke, which is derived from coal (but not from just ANY coal).

I don't have any experience with either as a fuel, but I do have experience with petroleum pitch and coal tar pitch, as organic binders for a class of ceramics used in steel mills.

Of the two, petroleum pitch is considered more benign in terms of health hazards, which is like saying that a rattlesnake is less lethal than a king cobra. :)

A size graded granular form of magnesium oxide is mixed with one of the binders cited, then the mix is pressed hot, using hydraulic presses, into geometric shapes. The shapes are used to line vessels for oxygen steel making (BOP).

The United States is a serious coal exporter. If it were not so, our trade balance would be even worse than it is. But we also export significant tobacco products.

(Report Comment)
steve rueckhaus November 30, 2010 | 2:51 p.m.

The Fossil Fuel lobby should send the Sierra Club a fruit basket for this one.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 17, 2010 | 7:40 a.m.

I keep coming back to this item, because some things don't add up, especially since Missouri University of Science & Technology has now been given Curator approval to develop a geothermal energy system to meet its campus heat and power requirements.

Burning biomass will release tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as now happens with the existing system at MU; geothermal energy does not rely on fuel combustion; the release of carbon dioxide ("greenhouse gas") is nil.

There could be technical reasons why MU can't employ geothermal energy. Physical conditions may not be satisfactory to do so, and/or the heat and power requirements for the Columbia campus, which are FAR greater than for the Rolla campus, might preclude using geothermal energy.


The situation isn't without some humor. Rolla campus is much closer to significant sources of wood ("biomass") than the Columbia campus. Won't there be some cost associated with hauling all that woody material to Columbia? It's difficult to imagine that it will be transported free of charge. :)

[I believe I am correct that the Sierra Club is associated with the MU project but is not associated with the MS&T geothermal project. Sierra Club and MS&T are like oil and water.]

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 4, 2011 | 6:16 p.m.

Um... You know I just read the article and it appears to me that the Sierra group is AGAINST the burning of wood and then when I read all of your LONG comments it appears to me that the Sierra group is FOR burning of wood. I just wanted to point that out. It seems like the discrepancy still exists in one of today's article/comment section.
Should I complain about the writer's reporting skills?

(Report Comment)

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