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Biomass plant gets first endorsement

MANATEE — A proposed alternative-energy generation plant near Port Manatee won its first key endorsement Thursday, but not without reservations.

The Manatee County Planning Commission said the county should begin the process of amending its comprehensive plan to allow the proposed plant, which would burn biomass — or plant material, primarily wood chips and non-food crops — to generate up to 60 megawatts of electricity.

“This proposal is a huge improvement from what’s in Florida currently,” said planning board member Mary Sheppard, a long-time environmentalist.

But Sheppard cast the only vote against changing the plant site’s future land-use designation, saying there’s still too many unanswered questions about the plant’s potential environmental impacts. Board members Richard Bedford, Steve Belack, Dianne Belk and Joseph Guyton supported it, while Marilyn Stasica and David Wick were absent.

Richard F. Jensen, president of Florida Biomass Energy LLC, said the Bradenton company’s goal is to limit the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions to fewer than 25 tons annually — about a tenth of what is now allowed.

That would be on par with emissions from Florida Power & Light’s natural-gas plant in Parrish, he said.

“The biggest difference between us and natural gas is we’re carbon-neutral, (and) natural gas is not,” Jensen said.

The biomass plant, proposed for the west side of U.S. 41 at Armstrong Road, would burn wood chips and other clean plant material to heat water, thus generating steam that would power a turbine and generate electricity, he said.

The company has a tentative agreement to sell electricity to Progress Energy and is in discussions with FPL, which has a substation immediately north of the proposed biomass facility.

The wood chips would be trucked in or shipped through Port Manatee. The company also is talking with area landscapers about using yard waste and with local farmers about growing crops for the facility, Jensen said. No garbage would be burned and there would be no odor from the plant, he said.

He estimated it would take two years to build the estimated $185 million facility, which would employ about 25 people and could be the first of several in Florida.

“This facility, we want to replicate this across the state,” Jensen said, adding his company already is scouting four or five other sites for a second plant. “We want to make this a model.”

But Sheppard and a neighboring property owner had reservations about the Manatee proposal, such as its estimated daily need of 1.2 million gallons of reclaimed water for cooling.

“This is a huge, long-term decision for our water supply, our agriculture, and potential loss of trees we might not want to be losing,” Sheppard said. “We’ll lose an awful lot of cropland.”

Jensen said the company doesn’t know how much land, if any, it will need to grow non-food crops for fuel. The company is working with University of Florida agricultural researchers to determine which crop would be best.

The biomass plant is at least the third power-generating plant that has been proposed for the port area in recent years. The previous ones never were built, a history that a neighbor cited in questioning whether the proposal is being well-thought out.

“I’m a big fan of what he’s doing, but as a property owner, I have some concerns about the speed at which he is moving,” said Gordon Hester of U.S. Funding Group. “Why are they pushing this through? This is a new company, a startup. We don’t know what their finances are like.”

Jensen said his company’s finances “are strong.” The company does not own the proposed plant site, but has it under contract, he said.

Planners said they will look at potential environmental impacts when they review a preliminary site plan for the plant but that the county can’t approve it until after the comprehensive plan is amended, a process that could last throughout this year. The plant also must obtain state and federal permits.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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