The Energy Department's latest biomass plant is seeing plenty of green — it's environmentally friendly and it's costing taxpayers a wad of money.
The $65 million facility at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee could wind up costing double that amount — another $67 million — because of mistakes in its construction and operation, the Energy Department's internal watchdog is warning.
"The Oak Ridge Site Office had not ensured the construction site was suitable and the soil conditions had been properly analyzed prior to the initiation of a major construction project," investigators for the department's inspector general's office said.
The biomass-fueled steam plant burns wood chips from local sources and originally was projected to supply much of the site's energy needs at a significant discount to fossil fuels.
It wasn't until after construction started that workers discovered that the building site was contaminated by high levels of oil and radioactive water, the IG's office said. Construction ground to a halt for nine months, and costs soared by $44 million while Oak Ridge tried to fix the problems.
It wasn't until later that investigators discovered that an independent engineering company had performed an evaluation prior to construction and warned Oak Ridge about the potential problems — but the laboratory chose to ignore the assessment.
The silver lining in the IG's report was a sister project: a $164 million biomass facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina that investigators said was running efficiently and as expected.
The contrast between the two sites is striking when looking at their current operations. Oak Ridge requires a large amount of biomass to operate, about "10 truckloads of woodchips per day," the IG said.
But while Savannah has contracted with multiple suppliers, Oak Ridge has just one — giving that company a monopoly and making the laboratory vulnerable to price increases. In fact, investigators found that Oak Ridge was paying $50 per ton of wood chips, but Savannah was paying just $28.50.
That could tack on an extra $23 million in costs over the life of the facility, the IG warned.
Plus, the laboratory isn't weighing the shipments it gets to make sure they are the right amount, instead trusting the contractor to weigh the wood chips before delivery.
"Oak Ridge had limited assurance that it was receiving the correct amount of woodchips it was paying for," the IG said. "At 10 truckloads a day, even small discrepancies in the weight could result in a significant variance."
And Oak Ridge is a lot less prepared for an emergency or biomass shortage, investigators said. It has only a three-day supply of wood chips stored on site to keep power running. Savannah, meanwhile, has storage for a 30-day supply.
Officials at Oak Ridge said they are going to make a decision by April whether storage space needs to be increased. And in November next year, they'll evaluate whether there are other wood-chip suppliers they could be using.
They also touted the biomass plant's fuel efficiency, saying it will save money in the long run and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20,000 tons annually compared with the fossil fuel boilers it replaced.
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