Wood-burners – The high cost of using 1860s and 1930s technology for heating, illumination, and cooking

The cutting edge of renewable energy is chopping down trees, chipping them, loading the chips onto a truck, transporting to a brand new plant, and burning them.

Yes, burning trees to read your paper at night, illuminate your office during the day, and (for some) cooking dinner. The new technology is called biomass.

That’s the same power source used by Abraham Lincoln when he was going to school. His family used wood for cooking, heating, and illumination.

In fact, as recently as when my dad was growing up on a farm, the family used wood for cooking and heating. Thanks to John Rockefeller, they were able to use kerosene for illumination. They would buy coal to keep the house warm overnight. Wood was the sole cooking source and primary heating source.

Public Service of New Hampshire has a new wood-burner fully online. I calculate it will cost New Hampshire residents an extra 1 or 2  cents a kilowatt-hour.

For the next 20 years.

New wood-burner plant at full capacity

The Burgess BioPower Power Plant achieved full production output in May 2014, more than six months later than expected.

New Hampshire Public Radio reports Berlin Biomass Plant Fully Operational, But at What Cost To Taxpayers?  The plant will sell electricity to PSNH under a 20 year contract at a fixed price.

According to the article, the current best estimate is the cost to ratepayers will be $125,000,000 more than if the electricity was purchased at market prices. One estimate was $140M. Let’s go with only $125M.

The plant is rated at a potential capacity of 75MW output. (that web page mentions one of the criticisms of the plant is asking whether the transport effort will actually offset any reduced carbon output but the page then doesn’t address the question)

Let’s convert that multimillion dollar amount into costs per kilowatt-hour, which is what consumers understand.

Extra costs per year

  • $125,000,000 – extra cost over 20 years
  • / 20 – length of fixed contract
  • = $6,250,000 – estimated cost per year

Production output

  • 75 MW – rated potential output
  • X 24 hours a day
  • X 365 days a year
  • = 657,000 megawatt hours (MWH)

Cost per kWh

  • $6,250,000 – cost per year higher than market price
  • / 657,000 MWH per year
  • = $9.51 – extra cost per MWH
  • / 1000 – convert to kW
  • = $0.00951 – extra cost per kWh at 100% output

Increased costs to consumers

So, if the plant runs at 100% output round the clock every day for the next 20 years, it will cost consumers an extra 0.95 cents per kilowatt, or about a penny.

I seriously doubt 100% capacity will be realized 24/7. Pulling an assumption out of thin air, if the plant runs at 50% of the 657,000 MWH per year capacity for the next 20 years, it will cost New Hampshire consumers an extra 1.9 cents per kWh.

For perspective, here in California, I paid 9.9 cents per kWh for generation.

That would be a 10% to 20% increase in the generation charge if the wood-burner’s output went into the electricity I used.

Oh, and it is an open, unanswered question whether the plant will reduce or increase carbon output.

This whole thing of burning trees for illumination and cooking was old news to Abraham Lincoln and my grandparents, but it is new to me.

What did I miss in my analysis?

Anyone able to illuminate the math for me? Any errors?

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