HAZARD — A long-awaited energy project in Perry County remains on hold in the ongoing down economy, though officials with ecoPower Generation say a proposed wood-burning power plant planned for the Coalfields Industrial Park in Chavies has not been shuttered.
ecoPower CEO Gary Crawford said he is optimistic that the plant will be more needed than ever in the coming years. Nearly three years ago the power plant, which would burn waste wood left over from the process of cutting lumber, was proposed for the industrial park and would be able to employ around 200 people and bring in millions of dollars. To date no construction has begun.
While officials at ecoPower say that that project is still going to happen, lately county officials have rebutted that. During a fiscal court meeting in August, Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble said that the plan for the power plant was no longer viable and wasn’t going to happen.
While Crawford fully understands the county’s hesitation to think that this project will happen, he says the plant will be built, the question is simply when. “I certainly understand why there are going to be some local questions as it relates to … the status of those things,” said Crawford. “This development project has been going on for three years now; it has taken much longer than we anticipated.”
With the uncertainty of the energy market hanging in the balance, ecoPower officials have had difficulty finding a buyer for the energy the plant would generate. While the United States is experimenting with different new energies such as wind and solar, where a wood-burning plant will fit in to this market is still unclear.
However, the plant should have no difficulty meeting federal environmental regulations that are causing problems for the coal-fired plants. Considering that wood fire has little to none of some of the regulated heavy metals in coal, this should not be a problem, Crawford said.
“There is virtually no mercury in wood, and no sulfur to speak of, and those tend to be the two most common elements in fuels that obligate the emissions profile,” he continued.
With many utilities operating coal plants remaining under pressure to meet those regulations by the January 2016 deadline, they are looking at either adding expensive filters for emissions or convert to an alternative fuel source such as natural gas. Crawford believes that in the meantime companies may become more interested in purchasing their cleaner energy.
Some of these companies, such as Kentucky Power which operates the the Big Sandy plant in Louisa, considered putting expensive devices in place to become compliant. Company officials instead ended up abandoning the plan and are now looking at alternative ways to become compliant. This could mean shutting the plant down.
If plants like the Big Sandy plant do shut down, the utility companies are still responsible for supplying power to these areas formerly served by the plants. According to Crawford, this could mean good news for their plant to take over some of the energy generation, however, it is too soon to tell.
The proposed plant for Chavies would be able to take up to 30,000 homes off a coal-fired plant’s workload. While no deal has been made yet with a utility company to buy this power, ecoPower remains in negations with other companies.
“We are continuing to be involved in active conversations with buyers,” said Crawford. “The reality of it is pretty simple: This kind of investment is dependent upon getting a good solid contract with a taker that would make the financing work.”
While in the past ecoPower has attempted to give a construction start date based upon permits, all of the permits are currently in place and construction could begin as soon as a buyer can be found. This also means it could be within months or years.
“For us it is not a question of ‘if,’ it is a question on ‘when,’” said Crawford. “With the recession in the financial markets, it just makes it a difficult market to really crack at this time.”