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Progress looking into grass as gas

The energy company buys into a proposed plant that would run on biofuel grown on the site.

Published May 2, 2006

Imagine a low-emissions power plant that uses vegetation grown on site as its sole source of fuel.

It's a tantalizing concept that Progress Energy Florida is buying into. On Monday, the St. Petersburg utility said it signed a 25-year agreement to buy the entire output of a proposed 130-megawatt power plant in Central Florida that would run wholly on a type of woody grass grown right by the power plant.

The project is being developed by Biomass Investment Group of Gulf Breeze, a 3-year-old company that has never overseen the construction of a power plant before. The company is in the final stages of selecting a contractor to build the plant.

Despite this lack of experience, Progress decided to sign on after being impressed by Biomass Investment's novel technology and its ability to line up engineers and investors for the project, according to Bob Niekum, the utility's director of wholesale power.

"There's a whole body of people who believe it can be done and have put their money into it,'' Niekum said.

While the two sides didn't disclose the financial terms of the deal, Niekum said the contract will enable Progress to purchase electricity at a rate slightly below what it would cost the company to generate the power itself through a natural gas plant.

Biomass Investment chief executive Allen Sharpe has been trying for years to sell utilities, including Progress, on the concept of a wholly sufficient low-emissions power-generation facility.

But as has long been the case with renewable and alternative fuel sources, the biggest stumbling block was cost: Fossil fuels remained the cheapest way to generate electricity.

But recent surges in the prices of coal, oil and natural gas have made Biomass' technology cost competitive and economically viable, Sharpe said.

"The high price of natural gas has just gotten to the point where we can now compete,'' he said.

Biomass plans to grow a woody, bamboolike grass called arundo donax on 15,000 acres on a plot of land south of Orlando that has yet to be determined. The hardy grass is resistant to insects and disease and offers a high yield per acre and ease of storage, Sharpe said.

About 500,000 tons of the crop would be required to fuel the plant for a year, he said. The plant would emit low levels of nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide, but the entire process would consume more carbon dioxide than it emits, a major environmental advantage.

The power plant will convert the grass into a gaseous fuel through a process developed by Kevin Mills, Biomass Investment vice president of operations.

Mills, a former senior research engineer at Southern Co. of Atlanta, said he expects the power plant to begin commercial operations in late 2008 or early 2009.

Progress decided on a purchase-power agreement with Biomass Investment because it offered a financially attractive means of expanding the amount of power it purchases from renewable sources, Progress spokesman C.J. Drake said. Renewables account for about 5 percent of Progress' total portfolio of 10,400 megawatts generated and purchased power capacity, he said.

Biomass Investment's plans to build a 130-megawatt power plant using only a dedicated agricultural crop for fuel would be unprecedented for a commercial plant of its size, said Richard Bain, an engineer and biomass specialist at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Sharpe's primary business experience has been in developing and selling assisted living facilities in the Carolinas. But Bain, who is familiar with Biomass Investment and its proprietary technology, described Sharpe and his team as "credible."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Louis Hau can be reached at or 813 226-3404.

[Last modified May 2, 2006, 05:57:49]

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