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Xcel looks to make Ashland plant Midwest's largest biomass producer

Officials with Xcel Energy announced Friday that the Wisconsin Public Service Commission will review the company's request to convert one of the their coal-fired plants to one that uses biomass.

Xcel officials say this is the first step in the process which would allow them to convert the plant in Ashland into the Midwest's largest biomass power plant.

The plant currently has two power-producing units already using biomass gasification technology to produce energy. The request would allow the company to convert the plant's third and final coal-burning unit to biomass.

The biomass gasification technology allows the company to use parts of trees left over from logging in area forests and convert them to fuel which is powerful enough to fuel a boiler which in turn helps to create electricity.

In the future the company predicts forests will be grown simply to power biomass plants.

"Tree species such as hybrid poplar and willow could be grown on biomass plantations or multifunctional production systems to produce sustainable short-term crops of trees," said David Donovan, Xcel's manager of regulatory policy.

He added that the use of biomass could offer economic development opportunities to northern Wisconsin.

"Among other benefits, grower cooperatives could offer centralized locations for aggregation, processing and storage of biomass and provide just in-time delivery to consumers," Donovan said.

The biomass gasification technology has been around for about 50 years, according to Xcel officials, and is used to power plants in both Europe and Asia.

In the gasification process, the biomass reacts with a controlled amount of oxygen at high temperatures to create a gas mixture called synthetic gas or "syngas." This is then burned to power the boiler.

Company officials say the conversion will cost between $55-70 million, but they say it will reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides by 60 percent, sulfur dioxides by 80 percent and particular matter by more than 80 percent.

They add that it will also reduce net carbon dioxide emissions.

"By converting biomass to gas, the resulting fuel is much cleaner and has far fewer emissions than fossil fuels," a company press release stated.

Company officials don't expect construction on the project to start before 2010 because of time needed to get approval from various state and federal agencies, along with engineering and design work.

They don't expect the unit to be fully operational until late in 2012.

Get more information on Xcel's Web site (