U of South Carolina’s Biomass Experiment

The University's biomass facility will take advantage of some of the state's 21 million tons of waste wood chips each year. Photo: University Marketing and Communications

Here’s a post from Matthew Koehler.

FYI: The University of Montana’s proposed $16 million wood-burning biomass plant has been supported by the SouthWest Crown of the Continent “Collaborative” as well as highlighted by Senator Tester as he pushes his mandated logging bill, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Here’s a comprehensive look at how the University of South Carolina’s biomass boiler (from the same Nexterra Corp who will build UM’s biomass plant) actually turned out. Perhaps it would be wise for the environmental community to pay attention to these actual real-world experiences with wood-burning biomass.


As the University of Montana prepared to spend over $16 million installing a wood-burning biomass boiler next to the Aber Hall Dorms, it’s interesting to look at the new information coming out of the University of South Carolina and that school’s experience dealing with the same type of Nexterra biomass boiler that UM proposes to use.

Ironically, despite three “‘potentially lethal accidents’ and a host of other problems with the Nexterra wood-burning biomass boilers at the Univ of South Carolina, Nexterra still proudly features the Univ of South Carolina biomass plant on their website (http://www.nexterra.ca/industry/johnson.cfm).

In addition to the remarkable article below, make sure to check out “University of South Carolina looking for refund on $20 million biomass plant”

Below are a couple of excerpts from the piece

Sun, Oct. 09, 2011
USC’s biomass plant debacle
How the university’s green dream went bust after three ‘potentially lethal accidents’ and a host of other problems

[email protected]

On June 28, 2009, an explosion rocked the biomass-fueled power plant on the campus of the University of South Carolina.

The force of the blast sent a metal panel some 60 feet toward the control office of the plant at Whaley and Sumter streets, according to documents obtained from USC by The State newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.

No one was hurt, but USC officials were concerned enough about the “potentially lethal accident” that they ordered an independent safety review and, in a strongly worded letter to the company that had built the plant, made it clear that university staff would not be allowed back into the building until the review was completed.

The blast underscored what some USC officials privately grumbled about for years: That the plant has been a $20 million disaster, a money pit that was poorly planned and built by a company that had never constructed such a cutting-edge “green energy” power plant before.

Interviews with USC officials and a spokeswoman for the company as well as a review of more than 1,800 pages of documents show that:

• USC, whose officials touted the plant “as the cat’s meow” before its startup in December 2007, closed it in March of this year after it had been shut down more than three dozen times. In one two-year period, the plant only provided steam – its purpose – on 98 out of 534 days, according to a USC review.

• There was no separate bidding process for the construction of the plant. The firm that built it, Johnson Controls Inc. of Wisconsin, was the only firm that included the construction of a biomass plant as part of its effort to win a competitively bid energy services contract. JCI won that $33.6 million energy services contract, then alone negotiated with USC the added cost of the biomass plant.

• USC paid JCI an additional $19.6 million for the plant. The university was to get its money back in energy savings or payments from JCI. So far, JCI has paid USC $4.3 million because the plant did not perform as promised. As things stand now, USC will recoup its $19.6 million investment by 2020 from payments by JCI.

• Despite a relationship that was, at one point, so acrimonious that USC hired outside legal counsel, the university continues to work with JCI. One option that USC now is considering is putting natural gas-fired turbines in the closed biomass plant to produce power, and JCI may be involved, a USC official says.

• Most substantively, however, the biomass experience led USC to change its structure of governance, giving a reformulated committee of its board of trustees responsibility for overseeing and vetting projects.

Now sitting idle, with spider webs and a thin film of dust replacing a plant’s hard-hat hustle and bustle, the biomass plant stands as a monument to the university’s failed push toward new, “green” technology, inadequate oversight and naïveté, some of its own officials acknowledge in internal documents.

The plant blemishes the legacy of the late Andrew Sorensen, the beloved, bow-tied president who was in charge of USC when the plant was conceived and constructed. And it also raises questions about whether USC’s revised system of oversight will be able to prevent future instances of idealism gone wrong that marred the biomass project from the beginning.

“A (expletive) mess with many layers,” is how William “Ted” Moore, a former USC vice president of finance and planning, described the plant in an email to Ed Walton, USC’s chief financial officer.

In another email, this one to USC president Harris Pastides, who succeeded Sorensen, Moore said: “The value of this thing may be scrap metal.”

That’s not the way JCI sees the project.

“We remain committed to the long-term success of the USC project, and the university has been supportive and appreciative of Johnson Controls’ efforts to fulfill its commitment,” said Karen Conrad, the company’s director of marketing communications.

Check the whole article out here..

Here’s another quote relevant to our usual biomass discussion.

In broad terms, the idea behind the biomass plant was simple enough.

USC would take wood byproduct, plentiful in South Carolina, heat it up and create steam that would be used to supply up to 85 percent of the Columbia campus’ energy needs.

Some environmentalists have questioned whether that process is actually “green,” since it creates a demand for wood products. USC, however, saw the move as a step toward the cutting-edge future of energy production, a chance to move away from fossil fuels.

“Getting away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy source is a very positive, very green thing to do,” Kelly told The State in 2006. “We are excited about being on the leading edge of this.”

On Friday, Kelly reiterated his belief in biomass as a new and important fuel source. He and Zeigler said those who are critical of the project don’t understand the circumstances that USC faced when it sought proposals from firms that could help the university save energy and money.

The university’s energy system was inefficient, they said. Several boilers were being used past their expected lifespan, and the price of natural gas, the university’s primary source of fuel, was rising sharply.

It was in that context, Zeigler and Kelly said, that the university sought ideas from companies for how USC could save energy and money.

JCI had been working on energy projects for USC for many years before the university sought proposals to improve its energy system. “We knew them,” Kelly said. “They weren’t fly-by-nighters.”

An important bonus for USC was the belief that its energy costs would be reduced by going with biomass. JCI promised that USC would save $2.1 million a year though the biomass plant or JCI would pay the university any difference between its actual savings and that sum – a pledge USC nailed down in writing.

To help pay for the project, USC would borrow money by selling bonds, and the university would use its energy savings – or JCI’s payments – to make the debt payments.

5 thoughts on “U of South Carolina’s Biomass Experiment”

  1. This sounds like a good warning, Matthew, and there seem to be enough management, as well as technical, issues to go around. What do you think the U of M people should do to have a more successful experience with the same company?

    If wood byproduct is “plentiful in South Carolina” (or there are 21 million tons of waste wood chips, as claimed above) then what is the logic that biomass plants “create a market for wood products?” Shouldn’t the discussion simply be about sourcing? So perhaps “some environmental groups feel that only wood otherwise wasted should go to biomass, and are concerned that if there are too many biomass plants that unsustainable practices will be used to get that material?”

  2. Thanks for posting this article about the debacle that is the Univ of South Carolina wood-burning biomass plant.

    RE: Univ of Montana’s Biomass Plant and the Southwestern Crown of the Continent “collaborative” group

    If anyone bothers to actual look at the University of Montana’s just released Final EA (available at: http://www.umt.edu/biomassplant/) for their proposed wood-burning Biomass Plant you’ll notice plenty of information in the Final EA and the response to comments related to the Southwestern Crown of the Continent “collaborative” group and the federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP).

    People should know that on August 1, 2011 the Southwestern Crown of the Continent “collaborative” group purged the SW Crown’s work plan to remove any mention that the UM Biomass Plant was part of “infrastructure needed to implement [the SouthWest Crown] project.”

    The reason that this information was removed and purged from the Southwestern Crown of the Continent “collaborative” group’s Work Plan is because including the UM Biomass Plant as part of the “infrastructure needed to implement [the SouthWest Crown] project” opens up the very real potential that the UM Biomass Plant would need to go through a more comprehensive NEPA process (National Environmental Policy Act).

    I have attached the original Southwestern Crown of the Continent “collaborative” group’s Work Plan here (http://wildrockies.org/biomass/SWCrownWorkPlan.pdf), which clearly has plenty of mentions of how the UM Biomass Plant is part of the “infrastructure needed to implement the project,” including mention of the importance of the UM Biomass Plant in a chart.

    However, the PURGED Southwestern Crown of the Continent “collaborative” group’s Work Plan (http://wildrockies.org/biomass/PURGEDSWCrownWorkPlan.pdf) clearly shows that all mention of the UM Biomass Plant, including the chart, had been purged and re-written as of August 1, 2011.

    More to come….

  3. I believe the University of Idaho in Moscow has a biomass plant at the school that has been successfully running for 2 decades or more. Perhaps they would be a better example than the University of South Carolina. But I guess if your anti biomass then South Carolina it is.

  4. Based on the quite damning information contained in the well-researched and well-documented investigative article from one of South Carolina’s leading newspapers…

    It’s pretty interesting (hilarious? sad?) to read these glowing “articles” from a corporate publication and Nexterra’s own press materials about how great Nexterra’s wood-burning biomass boiler at the University of South Carolina was supposed to be…



  5. During the summer, I live about 5 miles from a biomass facility in West Enfield, Maine. The Energy Justice Network describes it as follows:

    Acquired by Covanta Energy in 2008, the West Enfield Power Station began commercial operation in November 1987. The facility takes wood waste from forest operations, thinnings and sawmills and combusts it in specially designed boilers to generate renewable energy. The wood waste is reduced to an inert ash residue that is approximately 3% of its original volume. The ash residue is can be used as fertilizer, soil amendment or bedding for farm animals. The facility processes The Covanta West Enfield Power Station processes 550 dry tons of biomass waste materials a day, producing 24.5 megawatt hours of electricity for ISO-New England, a regional transmission organization serving Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

    I’m not aware of any safety issues. Just how “carbon-neutral” the plant is is not clear. As far as I know, it burns waste material rather than material harvested just for the plant. Apparently there is some competition with other mills which burn waste to produce energy heat for their processes.


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