Alabama Power studying switch to renewable fuels

Published 12:11 pm Monday, January 19, 2009

MOBILE — Alabama Power Co. is exploring the possibility of generating electricity by burning wood or other renewable fuels at one of its coal-fired plants.

The state’s largest electric utility expects to complete a study in the second half of this year.

Chris Habig, the company’s marketing renewable resources manager, said Alabama Power will make a decision once the study is done.

Habig told the Press-Register the study is part of Alabama Power’s general planning activities and that the higher costs for coal and other fuels make a switch economically attractive for the first time.

Environmentalists see it as recognition that utilities are likely to face a long-term push from the federal government to reduce their dependence on coal as a primary fuel source.

Adam Snyder, executive director of Conservation Alabama, called it “a great move” and “more of a pre-emptive effort.”

Anne Blair of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, based in Knoxville, Tenn., said Alabama Power is anticipating what is likely to happen at the federal level and is changing its energy mix.

Alabama Power uses wood chips and switchgrass at its plant in Gadsden, but the company has no generating units that run entirely on wood and other renewable fuels, which are often called “biomass.”

Alabama Power has raised the biomass issue with the state’s utility regulatory board, the Public Service Commission.

Commissioner Susan Parker said it has come up in informal discussions, but “it’s still in the very preliminary stages.”

The PSC reviews Alabama Power’s plans for remodeling its plants because the money spent can affect electric rates.

Alabama Power’s study came to light because the city of Mobile has developed a list of proposed projects to be included in a federal economic stimulus plan, and it includes $100 million to covert Alabama Power’s Barry Steam Plant near Mobile to renewable fuels.

Habig said no decision has been made on how to pay for a conversion.