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From coal to biomass for some Virginia power

Dominion Virginia Power makes a deal with biomass manufacturer Enviva as the energy company converts a few coal power plants to burn wood pellets.

Dominion Virginia Power's Southampton (left) and Altavista (right) plants, which are coal-burning electricity power plants, will soon convert to using biomass. The company has made a deal with Enviva to supply its Southampton and Hopewell, Va., plants with waste wood chips.
Dominion Virginia Power

Some Virginians will soon have forests to thank for their electricity.

Biomass manufacturer Enviva has signed a contract with Dominion Virginia Power, a subsidiary of Dominion, to supply wood waste chips to two power plants that are being converted from using coal to renewable biomass.

Dominion Virginia Power had announced in April its intention to convert three 63-megawatt coal-burning electricity plants into three 50-megawatt renewable biomass electricity plants. Specifically, it plans to convert its Altavista, Southampton, and Hopewell, Va., plants. The Southampton and Hopewell plants have contracted to use Enviva wood waste chips pending approval from the Virginia State Corporation Commission. Together, when fully operational, the three revised plants will provide enough electricity to power 37,500 homes annually.

The energy company estimates that the switch will also significantly reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulates that have been emitted into the local air as a result of burning coal for electricity. The converted plants will be in line with new and more stringent emissions standards that have been set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Dominion Virginia Power.
Enviva's wood pellets are made from sawdust, chips, bark, and branches left over from lumber operations. For Dominion they will simply be providing wood waste chips. Enviva

The changes are part of the power company's effort to comply with Virginia's voluntary request that power companies get 15 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2025. As of 2010, Dominion Virginia Power was only at 4 percent, according to the company's own statistics.

Enviva currently has two biomass manufacturing plants in Mississippi, and another two to start production in North Carolina. The company already ships a large amount of its product to Europe, but in the U.S. using biomass wood pellets as fuel has been slower to catch on among utilities. Even among residential homeowners the use of wood pellets is still something of a novelty to many.

"Enviva is delighted to be a key part of Dominion's decision to be among the first U.S. utilities to embrace the power of biomass, benefiting their customers, the economy and the environment," Enviva CEO John Keppler said in a statement.

Enviva's wood pellets are made in the U.S. from "wood slash," the woody biomass that's the leftover byproduct from timber and logging operations. Enviva has said its biomass is considered renewable because the wood suppliers Enviva partners with participate in sustainable forest management. In the case of Dominion's project, Enviva will actually be supplying wood waste chips made from the bark, limbs and branches left over from timbering and not its typical pellets, according to the utility.

But there are conflicting views on whether burning even renewable biomass is a positive step in reducing carbon footprints. While Enviva's biomass may be procured from the byproducts of companies practicing responsible forest management guidelines, not all biomass is.

A study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources caused the commonwealth to reexamine its regulations on biomass for this very reason. Among many interesting findings with regard to the carbon neutrality of biomass versus coal or natural gas long-term, the study found that the success of biomass as a renewable source is wholly dependent on forest management programs meeting specific standards on rates of replanting. It also found that in many countries the standards are not up to par. At the time, the Biomass Power Association pointed out that the study did not include biomass companies using woody wastes and byproducts, and instead focused on those companies harvesting forests specifically for biomass.