Sen. Bond (R) speaks at the roundtable discussion

Columbia is in the hunt for a major data center, and if the city is to compete, it might rely on the growth of the use of renewable energy in the state.

Those working closely with the project call the company “The Big Apple,” a code name for a Fortune 50 company that’s looking for a place somewhere in the world to locate a $1.6 billion data center. But there’s one catch; the site has to have the capacity to fuel the data center solely on renewable energy. Columbia is on the list of the final 3 sites being considered.

“We’re not going to get there with wind and solar. The wind doesn’t blow consistently and the sun doesn’t shine that consistently in Missouri. We’ve got to use wood biomass or grass biomass,” said Senator Kit Bond at a roundtable discussion on “The Future of the Missouri Biomass Industry,” at the Life Sciences Center named after him at the University of Missouri.

Experts say Missouri can meet the renewable energy goal with biomass conversion. Bond anticipates other large companies using that angle too, to be ahead of the curve when it comes to potential carbon emission penalties in the future.

“Missouri has tremendous forest resources, primarily in south Missouri. Much of it, six-sevenths of the forest we have, is not usable commercial-value saw timber. That material should be removed for a healthy forest, and that can be converted to electricity, which is almost carbon neutral,” Bond said.

Meantime, the EPA is considering putting biomass in the same category as fossil fuels when it comes to its treatment in emissions limits, raising questions over how “clean” biomass energy really is. Bond refutes that, saying the woody biomass releases the same amount of carbon dioxide rotting in the forest as it does burning in an incinerator.

Dr. Gene Garrett, a former professor of Forestry and founder of the Agroforestry Program at MU, opened the roundtable meeting. He puts the potential for the industry in perspective.

“This data center that they were talking about is roughly going to require a million green tons per year. We’re talking about, out here in our native forests, having maybe 100 to 140 million tons that we can actually use,” Dr. Garrett said.

Dr. Garrett says the woody biomass would only make up about half of the potential biomass product in the state.  The rest could come from grassy biomass, especially from grasses with high energy yields in the northern part of the state.

“This is an opportunity to make a valuable industry out of harvesting that scrub timber and converting it to chips or by torrefied wood or maybe even gasification. Although from Gene’s chart it looks like combustion may be the most effective way to use it,” Bond said at the roundtable, after Dr. Garrett’s presentation.

Those working on the project that were present at the roundtable say the  company is expected to make a decision as early as the end of the year, or by the second quarter of 2011. Bond says an investment like that could be the catalyst in getting this industry off the ground. Up until now, there hadn’t been enough demand to justify setting up the infrastructure for delivery of the biomass and the conversion to energy.

“That will jump start the industry that the voters mandated for 2015, to have 15% of our electric power from renewables,” Bond said. “There are some mandates, but nothing substitutes for having demand come from the private sector.”

Bond warns Columbia has a disadvantage because the state doesn’t have tax exemptions for equipment, something he pushed for during the legislature’s special session in July.

AUDIO: Ryan Famuliner reports [1 min MP3]