Until a few years ago, most Arkansans had never heard of "biomass" and "bioenergy," but in a way, Arkansas has been in the game a long time.
"The forest products industry is the original biomass industry," Jim Wimberly says. "And paper mills are the original bio-refineries."
For decades, Arkansas paper mills have burned sawdust in their boilers to generate both thermal and electrical energy. Those mills are using biomass for their own manufacturing purposes, however, not selling biomass to others for the generation of energy, as would a proposed plant at Camden. That advanced use of biomass is still rare if not nonexistent in Arkansas. Development of the proposed Camden plant has been slowed. Another biomass plant was announced for El Dorado, but it's not operational either.
Wimberly hopes to roll the biomass ball along. He's president of Bioenergy Systems, a consulting and project development firm in Fayetteville. He says he's involved with biomass projects under consideration for Arkansas, but they're all confidential at this point. Some of them have been under consideration for several years, he said.
"But the economics are challenging. The ability to finance projects has been particularly difficult in the last two to three years, because of the credit squeeze and uncertainty about the energy market and energy prices."
Progress on a federal energy bill has been uncertain, Wimberly said, and it's hard to know where biomass is headed until more is known about where Washington is headed. When and if biomass gets moving, Arkansas is favorably situated, according to Wimberly. "We often refer to Arkansas as a biomass-rich state," he said. That's because the state has significant potential for growing energy crops, such as high-yield grasses and fast-growing trees.
The proposed Camden plant would manufacture and sell wood pellets — mostly in Europe — that would be burned to generate energy. The pellets are a cleaner fuel than the coal they'd replace. Arkansas already has a pellet plant, Fiber Resources in Pine Bluff, but it sells directly to consumers who have pellet stoves.