RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to an environmental issue playing out in the Pacific Northwest. Last year's economic stimulus package subsidized something called biomass energy. In many cases, that means burning wood to make electricity. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE: In Washington, D.C., they may call it biomass, but in the logging towns of Washington state, it goes by other names.
Mr. JERRY ENSLOW (Simpson Lumber Company): You want to see hog fuel.
KASTE: That's one of them - hog fuel. At the Simpson Lumber Company, Jerry Enslow leads the way into a giant shed. Inside, a 40-foot hill of hog fuel. That's bark, sawdust and wood shavings.
Mr. ENSLOW: We empty this thing weekly. If you don't, you know, this stuff has a tendency just to start its own fire from spontaneous combustion.
KASTE: Sawmills have long burned their waste wood to make steam and to dry green lumber, but now Simpson is planning a bigger furnace and a high-pressure boiler so it can generate electricity for the local power grid. Back in the office, vice president Doug Reed says it only makes sense for Simpson Lumber to get into the power business.
Mr. DOUGLAS REED (Vice President, Simpson Lumber): We have hundreds of tons of biomass produced by our processes, so it seems logical that if the country wants green power and it's said that it does that we should try to extract the most value from those little pounds of biomass, and make electricity as well as heat.
KASTE: Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Feds are offering a tax credit that'll cover up to 30 percent of the cost of new biomass plants. It's stimulus money, and it's setting off a small gold rush. Dozens of these plants are in the works across the country - two of them, right here in Shelton.
In fact, in this one, small lumber town, federal subsidies for biomass could easily exceed $100 million.
Ms. LINDA HELMS (Protester): I personally did not do my research.
KASTE: Linda Helms says she supported the stimulus package until she found out it could bring two wood-burning power plants to town. She's part of a group protesting outside the county commissioner's meeting.
Unidentified Man: What do we want?
Unidentified People: No incinerator.
Unidentified Woman: When do we want it?
Unidentified People: Now.
KASTE: The protesters' main worry is air pollution, but they also make a fiscal argument.
Ms. HELMS: We didn't as a United States government, we didn't have enough money for that stimulus package. We have to borrow that money. That's why we're in debt.
KASTE: Are you going to join the Tea Party?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HELMS: No, but you know, I'm not a Tea Partyist, but I'm a realist. I want common sense.
KASTE: Shelton's other biomass plant is being planned by ADAGE, a joint venture between Duke Energy and the French nuclear power company AREVA. The plant will cost about $250 million, which means up to $75 million from the government. But spokesman Tom DePonty says ADAGE isn't in this for the government money. He'd rather talk about the project's green motivations.
Mr. TOM DEPONTY (Spokesman, ADAGE): What we're really doing here is taking material that's currently being unused and taking advantage of it, and putting it to good use.
KASTE: The ADAGE plant will burn slash. That's the branches and other debris left behind by logging. It'll burn a lot of it - a ton a minute, 24 hours a day. And that raises another point: Wouldn't all this burning be a greenhouse gas disaster?
Mr. DEPONTY: Actually, no, 'cause this is all part of the natural carbon cycle. The carbon is going to be released from that wood, whether it's decaying in the forest, or whether it's burned in controlled slash piles as a forest management technique, or just trees dying and decaying themselves.
KASTE: That's true - in theory. But in practice, maybe not.
Mr. STEVE HAMBURG (Environmental Defense Fund): I think it could go either way.
KASTE: Steve Hamburg is a forest ecologist with the Environmental Defense Fund, and he's done the carbon math. He says biomass will reduce greenhouse gases if the fuel really is waste wood harvested in a sustainable way. And even then, you have to wait for the benefit - basically, the time it takes for the trees to regrow and reabsorb carbon.
Mr. HAMBURG: I am confident that these kinds of plants, over the next 200 years, would create a net reduction. But we really care about what's happening in the next 20 years, and certainly in the next 50 years.
KASTE: Hamburg says more studies are needed to figure out the real-world carbon impact of these biomass plants. But the pressure is on to build them now. If the developers want their share of the stimulus money, they need to break ground by the end of this year.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.