Tennessee Biomass Incinerator Shut Down For Costs, Safety

- by Frank Munger, August 24, 2014, Knoxville News Sentinel

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"249","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 233px; height: 155px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;"}}]]Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Biomass Steam Plant, heralded as a money saver and friend to the environment, failed to live up to its hype operationally, and the U.S. Department of Energy is reportedly trying to renegotiate its deal with the company that performed this and other projects at ORNL under a $90 million Energy Savings Performance Contract.

Johnny Moore, DOE’s site manager at the laboratory, confirmed that operations at the Biomass Steam Plant were shut down last fall after system checks revealed that walls were thinning in some of the key vessels and transfer lines. An analysis determined the walls were eroding because of the presence of “weak organic acids” generated by wood-burning operations that fueled the system, and there were safety concerns, he said.

Moore said Johnson Controls, which handled financing and construction of the steam plant under a special contract in which it was to be paid from the cost savings, quickly brought in a temporary boiler to allow continued steam production for heat and other uses at ORNL. But that boiler and other backup systems at the lab don’t use biomass as fuel and don’t meet the terms of the Energy Savings Performance Contract, he said.

The contract called for the Biomass Steam Plant to have a capacity of 60,000 pounds of steam an hour, using wood chips as fuel, he said.

The $60 million plant was supposed to save the lab millions of dollars annually and significantly reduce greenhouse emissions by replacing some of the old fossil-fueled boilers. The new steam plant was supposed to pay for itself within 15 years.

According to Moore, DOE is in discussions with Johnson Controls about how to move forward with a “robust” long-term solution. He would not comment on a report that the biomass system may be replaced permanently by one fueled with natural gas. Nor would he comment on the potential costs.

The discussions are “procurement sensitive,” the DOE official said, indicating that the existing contract may be modified. “I don’t want to say anything that would affect a conclusion,” he said.

“We’re at the point now, we’re just trying to come up with something that’s cheapest for the taxpayers and will give us a robust, long-lived plant,” he said.

Johnson Controls spokeswoman Monica Zimmer declined to comment and referred questions to the Department of Energy.

DOE entered into the Energy Savings Performance Contract with Johnson Controls in 2007. In addition to the Biomass Steam Plant, which was designed by Nexterra, Johnson Controls also was to conduct a number of other “sustainability” projects and overall cut the lab’s fossil fuel consumption by 70 percent.

The new steam plant began operations on March 27, 2012, and a grand-opening event was held a few months later, with officials touting the energy-savings projects as a way to cut costs and contribute to a cleaner environment.

“Basically, they guaranteed us that if we implemented the projects … that we’d save $8 million a year or more in energy costs, and those savings are being used to pay for the projects,” ORNL Deputy Director Jeff Smith said.

The biomass gasification system operated for about and a half before it was shut down.

Moore said Johnson Controls currently is not being paid for savings associated with the new steam plant because it’s not meeting the terms of the contract. The company, however, is being paid for other successful projects that are part of the performance contract, he said.

In a statement, DOE described the problems with the system fed by wood chips:

“The plant consisted of gasifiers to produce synthesis gas as fuel for a boiler, which produces steam … The equipment was housed in a new building with a modern control system and upgraded utilities. During routine system checks in late 2013, it was discovered that gasifier vessels and other transfer duct systems were showing signs of wall thinning due to problems with the materials of construction.”

Moore, who once headed technology development in DOE’s Oak Ridge office, said DOE looked closely at the technologies to be used before approving the biomass plan years ago. He said similar systems have been used with success, particularly in Canada.

Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman, who was in town a couple of weeks ago, was asked about the problems with the Biomass Steam Plant.

“We try to bat 1.000 and I feel pretty good in terms of the investments we make,” he said. “All of our efforts begin (with the intent) to do the best job possible as stewards for the taxpayer, but also try to strike out and do things that are innovative. When you do things that are innovative, it entails risk. We’re going to keep with it. Biomass is a huge priority.”

An August 2013 audit report by DOE’s Office of Inspector General was critical of the “planning and operational costs” associated with the ORNL steam plant. Even though the plant was supposed to save the lab $260 million over two decades, the report said the project was still costing more than it should — perhaps incurring as much as $67 million in unnecessary costs over its lifetime.”