Thurmont considers eco-friendly power plant

THURMONT, MARYLAND - Thurmont could be home to one of the nation's largest biomass-to-energy power plants as early as 2011.

In a presentation before the town's Board of Commissioners, energy consultant Bill Rodenberg described a zero-emissions plant that could help stabilize local energy prices and attract new businesses. Compared to fossil-fuel power plants, which can generate several thousand megawatts of energy, the Thurmont plant would generate as much as 30 megawatts.

Of the thousands of biomass plants in America, however, Rodenberg believes it would be among the largest.

"Thurmont probably isn't even findable on some maps," he said. "But we can put this town on the map."

Though estimated at $60 million, Rodenberg said Thurmont stands to profit from four new sources of income: electricity to be sold to the town, electricity to be sold to the PMN - or Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey - grid, renewable energy credits, and excess thermal energy recovered from the plant.

Renewable energy credits could be especially valuable, since Maryland requires energy companies sell a certain percentage of renewable energy, Rodenberg said. "They give us money and get credit for the good work we're doing," he said.

Mayor Martin Burns said building the plant might be a way for Thurmont to control its destiny when it comes to electricity pricing. He doesn't believe the town can address its electricity concerns in only three years, adding that Thurmont still has been dealing with sewer problems since 2003.

"We don't know if we want to do it, or can afford to do it, but we're looking into it," he said.

The plant would be owned and controlled by the town, eliminating market pressures on pricing. The town already distributes electricity to the majority of its 6,000 residents - something Rodenberg said is key. "This town has exactly what we need," he said.

Electric power generated from a biomass plant would cost more than that generated in a larger, fossil-fuel plant, but the sale of credits will bring the price down to equal or less than the cost of traditional power. Thurmont now purchases electricity directly from the grid, and sells it to residents at a reduced rate, Burns said. It would take about 50 employees and $25 million a year to run the plant, compared to five employees and $5 million a year now to provide Thurmont with power.

However, Rodenberg expects the plant could be profitable as soon as it opens.

"The town of Thurmont is just not in a position to run a venture unless it is self-sufficient or marginally profitable," he said. Power would be generated from the ground-up leftovers of tree trimmings, Rodenberg said. The town would pay for truckloads of waste, which would be stored and processed at an estimated 100-acre "fuel farm."

The exact size of the farm would depend on the technologies used in processing. A location has not been discussed. Maryland generates 800,000 tons of such waste each year, Rodenberg said, adding that the plant would require about 270 tons a year.

Using renewable biomass for fuel would remove 1.4 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually, he said, a well as keep waste from going to landfills and polluting the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Unlike a proposed $323 million joint waste-to-energy plant for Frederick and Carroll counties, the Thurmont plant would likely process only waste from plants. This should limit the complexity - and therefore cost - of the project, Rodenberg said. Rodenberg believes the plant would lure environmentally conscious people and businesses to Thurmont.

"(Businesses) will be able to put a big sign on their product and say, 'This product is produced with a zero-carbon footprint,' " he said.

Rodenberg, who is under contract for $1 to apply for federal, state and private grant money and complete a feasibility study, stressed that the project is in the early stages. He is talking to several agencies about possible funding - the Department of Agriculture will guarantee a $40 million loan for rural community development, he said.

Rodenberg's even lined up a potential customer for the excess thermal energy. A U.S. company that uses heat energy in its manufacturing process had looked at moving the company to Europe, Rodenberg said. Now, it is considering Thurmont. Rodenberg said he couldn't disclose the name of the company or its product.

Town commissioner Bob Lookingbill worried that the town may be getting ahead of itself. "How far along in this journey are we that he could make a statement that would sway them to move here?" he said.

Rodenberg said the grant process doesn't always follow a logical path. "It's almost like I have to prove the project is feasible before I can get a grant to do a feasibility study," he said.

Rodenberg said he learned the town wanted to generate its own electricity in summer 2007 when talking with some people in a local coffee shop. A certified energy manager and principal consultant of Energy Management Strategies, Inc., he knew from experience that some ideas wouldn't work.

"We got to talking about what would work," he said. "One thing led to another, and here I am in the middle of this." Rodenberg said the project has taken more time and effort than he anticipated when he agreed to investigate the possibility of a biomass to energy plant in late August. He said he expects to ask the commissioners to review the terms of his $1 contract soon.

"At some point in time there will be a financial advantage for me," he said. "I'm not completely altruistic in this. I'm in business."

For now, he will concentrate on securing funds for a feasibility study. The next steps will be to select the technology, complete a design and apply for permits, Rodenberg said.

It might be possible to begin construction by 2009. "There's nothing here that's rocket science, guys," Rodenberg told the town commissioners. "The technology is here."


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