A state court has said that North Carolina's power plants can burn whole trees harvested for fuel, and count the lumber toward their mandate to use green energy resources.
The N.C. Court of Appeals' ruling resolves a dispute between Duke Energy and two organizations: the Environmental Defense Fund and the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.
The two nonprofit groups had contended that letting power companies harvest trees for fuel, rather than using wood scraps and logging debris, would open the way to clear-cutting forests and other environmentally irresponsible practices.
But the appellate court upheld an October ruling by the N.C. Utilities Commission that said the state's 2007 energy law did not specify which kind of wood qualifies as biomass.
"All wood fuel is encompassed by the meaning of the term 'biomass,'" the court said this month. "Any resource that can be considered a biomass because it is organic and renewable is a biomass resource within the plain meaning of the statute."
Charlotte-based Duke had applied to the utilities commission in March 2010 to register two coal-burning power plants as renewable energy facilities because the company conducted trials at both plants using a blend of wood chips and coal.
Environmental groups opposed the request, setting up a commission hearing and a decision supporting Duke's request. The environmental groups challenged the commission's ruling at the appellate court, losing there as well.
"The language of the REPS [Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard] statute is clear and unambiguous: the only woody biomass resource mentioned as a renewable energy resource is 'wood waste,'" the Environmental Defense Fund wrote in a May legal brief. "Whole trees are not 'wood waste,' and therefore not a 'renewable energy resource' according to the plain language of the REPS statute."
Power companies in this state are required to derive 12.5 percent of their retail electricity sales from renewable resources, such as solar, wind or biomass, as well as energy efficiency programs and demand side management programs that reduce electricity usage.
Duke Energy has 1.8 million customers in North Carolina, including about 170,000 in Chapel Hill, Durham and other parts of the western Triangle.