Merritt’s Green Energy Project is a go and Western BioEnergy Inc. hopes it will help improve Merritt’s air quality over time, according to Vice President Fred Scott.

The proposed biomass plant is one of four new bioenergy projects approved by BC Hydro that will produce electricity by burning wood waste.

Along with Merritt, projects have been approved for Fort St. James, Fraser Lake and Chetwynd and will collectively produce enough clean renewable power for 70,000 homes annually.

The projects, selected under the second phase of BC Hydro’s BioEnergy Call for Power, will be worth more than $300 million and are expected to create approximately 1,500 person years of employment.

The Merritt plant, which will be located in the Tolko lumber yard will produce about 40 megawatts of electricity and use wood waste which would otherwise be left in the bush, or burned in piles.

Scott said Western BioEnergy is in the process of entering an electricity purchase agreement with BC Hydro. Once that is signed the company will need to acquire a total of 19 permits and certificates before beginning construction in Spring 2012.

“It’s a daunting task and there is a very lengthy consultation process,” said Scott. “You have to prove to BC Hydro and the Ministry of Environment that the facility you’re building will exist within their stringent guidelines.”

According to Scott, the company will be held to the highest standard in all of British Columbia. Merritt’s Green Energy Project will be limited to about one per cent of particulate emitted by beehive burners.

“Pellet mills can emit at six times the rate that we can,” he said, adding that the low particulate emissions can only be achieved by installing equipment that will strip the particulate from the exhaust.

Recognizing that dust is a problem in Merritt, Scott said the entire plant will be enclosed and the ten acre site will be paved so that trucks coming and going will not produce unnecessary dust.

Addressing community concerns, Scott added that the company will be very limited in what it’s allowed to burn for fuel.

“There have been questions about medical waste and garbage – we can’t use any of those things at all,” he said. “All of our fuel must be derived from forest residual.”

Further, Scott said Western BioEnergy Inc. wants to be part of the solution to Merritt’s air quality problem, rather than adding to it.

“There is a tremendous amount of roadside burning whether it’s on the Reserve or on Crown land and we hope to eliminate that,” Scott said. “We would like to pick up all of the debris and utilize it to the best that we can.”

Another community open house will take place in October to share information with residents and answer questions.

Besides the environmental benefits, the company is promising employment for up to 80 people during construction and 16 full-time positions at the plant when it’s complete, as well as a number of people employed in the collection of roadside debris.

“$60 to 65 million will be spent locally,” said Scott. “This is a heck of a shot in the arm for Merritt.”

With the addition of these four projects, BC Hydro will have a total of 16 bionenergy projects with electricity purchase agreements.

“Bioenergy is a cost-effective energy solution that makes sense for B.C. on many fronts – especially for our province’s dynamic forestry industry,” said Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests. “When compared to other forms of energy, bioenergy projects have higher levels of employment and generate more economic activity.”