During its regularly scheduled March 16 meeting, the Manatee Board of County Commissioners aproved the rezoning of approximately 48 acres near Port Manatee so that FB Energy of Bradenton can build what it calls a "solar biomass integrated power plant" there.
On the surface, this sounds wonderful; renewable energy, a $185 million investment, 150 construction jobs, and 25 or maybe 75 jobs (FB Energy president Richard Jensen has used both figures in newspaper interviews) once the place is up and running.
However, approval by the commissioners is only one step this plan must take before it turns into a plant. As Glenn Compton of ManaSota 88 has pointed out, "the make or break permit on this is probably the water use permit that may or may not be issued by SWFWMD."
Indeed, says Compton, the lack of an adequate cooling water supply may be "one of the reasons we haven't seen a powerplant at this location."
Compton also told the commission, "I believe that this is the third powerplant that has been proposed at Port Manatee in the last 10 years." Each one has come and gone, he said, "and now we have a biofuel power plant that I believe will come and go, also."
Pollution concerns also may stall this plant. It is designed to burn wood chips, which means it is essentially a glorified incinerator even if it has the word "solar" in its title, and burning wood is only slightly less polluting than burning coal, even if modern technologies are able to reduce stack gas emissions to levels much lower than were common back in the 20th century.
And whether or not this plant will be financially viable is still open to question. A recent Florida Deptartment of Agriculture study titled Economic Impact Analysis of Woody Biomass Utilization for Bioenergy in Florida comes to several ambiguous conclusions, but seems to indicate that bioenergy production such as FB Energy is proposing is only a clear economc winner when substantial tax credits or other government incentives are part of the picture.
The idea of producing enough electricity to power 40,000+ homes, along with creating 25 (or maybe 75) permanent industrial jobs here in Manatee County is certainly attractive. But there are many problems that could yet derail this plan. We won't know if it is really going to happen for some months yet, despite this week's County Commission approval.