North Carolina is about to become the nation's test case for what marketers call "green coal" -- wood that has been baked into charcoal.
If successful, the experiment -- a partnership of sorts between Progress Energy, N.C. State University and an Asheville start-up -- could mark the end of the state's reliance on dirty coal.
But the option of locally grown fuel is not without challenges and environmental concerns. Still, advocates of the process believe the technology is on the verge of a breakthrough.
"This is probably closer to reality than anything I have seen up to here," said NCSU professor Mike Boyette in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. "We're moving in the direction where some portion of our energy will come from biomass." The process is not as simple as collecting dead branches from the forest floor. The wood has to be treated in an industrial oven until it turns to charcoal. It remains to be seen if the experimental ovens can mass-produce charred wood of a uniform quality that won't clog power plants sensitively calibrated to burn coal.
Progress Energy this year plans to test the idea by adding charred wood at its coal-fired Cape Fear power plant in the Chatham County community of Moncure. The wood will come from two sources: NCSU's agricultural extension service, which has been developing a wood baking technology; as well as from Integro Earth Fuels, a 2-year-old Asheville company that's betting on the increasing importance of wood as a clean energy source.
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