By Peter H. Milliken
The local plant that supplies steam for heating and cooling downtown buildings has added wood waste to its fuel mix.
This has resulted in cost savings for the company and its customers, reduced air pollution and avoidance of the unnecessary dumping of wood waste in landfills, according to officials of Youngstown Thermal LLC, which operates the plant.
Since March 2012, the company’s steam producing plant at 205 North Ave., has been burning wood waste mixed with coal under an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency permit allowing the wood to be burned there.
Today, the mix is about 60 percent wood waste and 40 percent coal, said Carl Avers, Youngstown Thermal’s chief executive officer. “Our goal is to get to 90 percent wood in the next six months,” he added.
The company plans to increase its wood burning to the point where, sometime next year, the plant will completely eliminate coal as a fuel, Avers said. It will burn about 50,000 tons of wood a year when it reaches the point where it burns only wood, he said.
“It’s lower in cost for the company and for the customers. We pass the savings on to the customers,” Jennifer Stofo, a Youngstown Thermal chemical engineer, said of the waste wood.
“Everybody is concerned about being green, and they can be a part of that with us.”
If the wood cuttings were left to rot, “The wood’s going to decompose, decay and release as much bad stuff into the air as it is by burning it,” said John Rambo, Youngstown Thermal president.
The North Avenue plant has three boilers capable of burning wood waste and coal and one natural- gas-fired backup boiler.
Much of the wood is delivered free of charge to the plant by those who cut trees and branches near Ohio Edison’s electric power lines.
The steam-heating company pays for wood that is cut and delivered to the plant by land developers.
“We’re providing a service for the local tree trimmers. They bring it to us. They drop off wood because they know it’s going to be burned. It’s not going to be dumped,” in a landfill, Rambo said.
“We have multiple sources coming in, so it’s a constant supply of wood, so we don’t have to worry about running out of wood,” Rambo added.
A machine outside the North Avenue plant grinds the wood into smaller chips that are mixed with coal before being fed to the boilers.
“The wood that is trimmed off the trees in the local area is usually burned within about three or four days,” Avers said.
Avers said the company has not made any investment to modify its plant to allow introduction of wood waste as a fuel. “We’ve tricked the boiler. The boiler thinks it’s getting coal,” Avers observed.
Burning wood produces less air pollution than burning coal because, unlike coal, wood does not contain sulfur and does not emit sulfur dioxide when it burns, Avers said.
Soot emissions from wood burning are at least 30 percent lower than from coal burning, he added.
Avers acknowledges that it may soon be cost-prohibitive to burn coal and comply with new and stricter U.S. and Ohio EPA regulations concerning smokestack emissions.
Avers said he intends to install coal and wood gasification equipment at the plant within the next three to five years.
“The strategy is to get the wood flowing to us, and then we will make the investment in the gasification” technology, Avers said.
Such gasification equipment would likely cost $2 million to $3 million, including installation, Rambo said.
The plant would then burn the gas produced in that process, keeping the coal’s sulfur within the plant in ash, which can easily be removed and disposed of, Avers said.
That process reduces pollutant emissions far below those associated with coal or wood burning, he said.
Jim Petuch, Mahoning County recycling director, said burning the wood is preferable to dumping it in a landfill. “Landfilling should be the last resort,” he said.
Petuch said his first preference is to see the waste stream reduced at the source.
Second would be to reuse the wood in construction, if possible.
Third would be to recycle it into mulch for landscaping. Fourth would be to burn it in a waste-to-energy process, such as Youngstown Thermal’s.
Least desirable would be to dump it in a landfill, he said. “Once it’s in a landfill, it’s gone for good. So, it’s better at least to get that waste and make it into energy, which people need,” he observed.
“With the correct controls in place, it [wood] should burn at a cleaner rate,” than coal, said Tara Cioffi, administrator of the Mahoning-Trumbull Air Pollution Control Agency, which monitors air quality in the Mahoning Valley.
Burning untreated wood, such as that obtained from Ohio Edison tree cuttings and developers clearing land, would produce less air pollution than burning chemically treated wood, she said. “We don’t generally allow the burning of those types of materials,” Cioffi said of treated wood.
“I think that the transition that Youngstown Thermal is looking into doing is a good thing for the community,” she concluded.