4 The record articles

Strategically Navigating Air Permitting Challenges in the Biomass Industry

Posted: October 10th, 2019

Authors: Chuck D. 

In a world where time is money, air quality permitting is often the lynchpin in determining when construction can begin on a project.  Depending on the type of air permit you are applying for or the level of public interest, the length of time from submittal of an air permit application to receipt of a final permit can range from three months to over 12 months.

Based on our experience and observations over the last few years, both public and regulatory interest in the biomass industry (specifically the wood pellet industry) is at an all time high.  In many cases, this increased scrutiny has caused significant delays in obtaining requisite air permits.  This added level of scrutiny has led to a reactive permitting approach, where facilities agree to more restrictive operating limits like production or wood mix splits.  While this approach may help to expedite air permit issuance, long-term it hampers operational flexibility and may require a much more involved air permitting process to remove those original restrictions.   A primary goal for plant management is to increase efficiency: make more product with the same or less raw materials.  Agreeing to operating or production limits as part of the permitting process can limit the ability of facilities to take advantage of these increases in efficiency.  And let’s not forget the constant ongoing compliance worries that come along with a facility that continually flirts with exceeding a production limit. It is a sometimes-daily battle to ensure that your facility will not violate the terms of your air permit.

May I suggest an alternative: play the long game and use the air permitting process strategically to position your facility for the future.  Spend a little more time and money on the front-end and save yourself the headache of navigating under a production limitation.  Give your facility more operational freedom and lessen the chance that you will need to revisit air permitting in a few years to alter your production limitation.  In fact, there is an argument to be made that a strategic air permitting approach may  compress the length of time it takes to get an air permit and potentially provide an economic advantage with future facility growth (I’ll explain below).

So, what does strategic air permitting actually mean?  Let’s look at a hypothetical example.  Say I am looking to build a new wood pellet facility, and I want to build this facility as expeditiously as possible in the most economical way possible.  My primary pollutant of concern is likely volatile organic compounds (VOC).  I know from an air permitting perspective, I want to avoid federal and state Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permitting because it will significantly complicate the air permitting process and schedule.  PSD permitting could involve air quality modeling, require the installation of add-on control technology like a scrubber or thermal oxidizer, and will likely delay my timeline for construction.

To avoid PSD permitting, we need to limit the VOC emissions from our new facility to less than 250 tons per year.  In order to keep the permit process moving, we commit to a production limit of 75,000 tons of pellets per year, an annual average softwood/hardwood mix of 75/25, and an emissions rate (lb/ton) for each source to ensure that our actual emissions remain below 250 tons per year.  Our permit application has a significant amount of interest from the public and environmental groups, which leads to a heavy comment and response period, public hearings, and delays the issuance of our permit by months.

Now if we rewind and approach the permitting strategically, how much production can our local wood basket support? Possibly 200,000 tons of wood pellets per year, the majority of which would be made up of softwood.  How do I need to design my facility to operate at 200,000 tons per year?  I can look at technology improvements on my dryer to reduce VOC emissions or maybe even look at an add-on control technology.  The big difference between add-on control technologies in this scenario and PSD permitting is that the type of control technology will not be mandated by the permitting process.  I have the flexibility to choose an option that works best for my facility from both a financial and technological standpoint.  Now I understand that add-on controls will add to the cost of construction and may add operational challenges, but let’s look at some of the benefits:

  1. Increased annual production by 125,000 tons of pellets per year.
  2. VOC emissions are below the 250 tons per year threshold to avoid being classified as a major source under PSD permitting regulations.
  3. No air quality modeling for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).
  4. Permit timing could be dramatically reduced.
  5. Avoid the complications of future permitting for increased production.
  6. Improved public and regulator perception.

The forgotten element with taking a more strategic approach is that it could ultimately result in receiving a permit faster.  As I stated before, the environmental permitting landscape is shifting.  Public access to data is at an all-time high and U.S. EPA is continuing to emphasize their commitment to transparency.  For the regulated community, we can continue to expect increased public involvement in the permitting process, and the timing of permit issuance may continue to increase.  But if you can anticipate the public’s concerns and address them as part of your permit application (e.g., with an add-on control technology), you may be able to significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to receive a permit.

This same thought process can apply to existing facilities too.  How can I use environmental permitting as a strategic advantage rather than a hinderance?  Talk with your plant operators and make sure you have a thorough understanding of your equipment and operations.  Where might there be opportunities to reduce emissions that could ultimately lead to increased production?  Once you have identified environmental opportunities, talk with facility management.  Educate them on the air permitting obligations and encourage a collaborative environment to put your facility in the best long-term strategic position to take advantage of efficiency improvements and operate at a production rate that you want.  Do not wait until your operational limits have already become a problem, instead be proactive.  This type of mindset will allow you to react quickly without potentially needing to modify your air permit in an increasingly competitive market.

Now approaching air permitting strategically is certainly not without its challenges.  As I mentioned previously, add-on controls bring their own challenges to the table.  Add-on control technologies could trade one pollutant of concern for another [nitrogen oxides (NOX) for VOC as an example for thermal oxidizers], so it will require additional consideration to determine the path forward that best suits your long-term vision for the operation of your facility. Control technologies may increase your costs and the time spent engineering and designing the facility.  But if it allows you the operational freedom to produce more, it may just be worth the extra challenge.


This article was featured in the September/October 2019 issue of Pellet Mill Magazine


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