[NEWS] Can Biomass Help “Clean” Coal?

– by Ken Silverstein, February 14, 2016, Forbes


Photo: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

While a conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court had blocked implementation of the Clean Power Plan, market forces have still favored green energy and carbon reductions. But does that necessarily spell an end to coal plants?

If they are able to meet the more stringent emissions’ tests, some will survive — a development that could also bode well for the biomass sector, whose product can be co-fired along with coal. Indeed, if just 5 percent of the coal that is burned today were replaced with wheat, grasses or forest residue, it would reduce carbon releases by 16 percent, say experts.

“Even in light of the fact that the Supreme Court has hit the pause button on the Clean Power Plan, we are not seeing any waning of interests in reducing carbon emissions and especially toward using more biomass,” says Nancy Heimann, chief executive of Enginuity Worldwide, a Missouri-based company that transforms grass, wood and agricultural waste into a biomass fuel.

Biomass has long been on the table with respect to co-firing it with coal as a way to possibly reduce pollution. But the cost of doing so has made the return on investment impractical for many utilities, namely because the biomass does not have the same “heat content” as does coal. That means that it takes a lot of energy to operate the systems and to produce a viable fuel to create electricity. Hence, carbon emissions may actually be greater than burning pure coal.

Whereas previous technologies may have just used raw biomass, Heimann told this reporter that her technology uses an “upgraded” version of such feedstock that she labels as “bio-coal.” It is then just dropped into the existing infrastructure to make electricity — cheaper than building a new gas-fired power plant.

Just how practical is this? St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. is giving it a try, calling it a “promising technology.” The utility says that it is interested in diversifying its energy mix. And while Missouri has no coal or gas of its own, it has plenty of biomass raw materials — something that it considers to be a clean supplement to its coal-fired generation there.

As such, it has signed an agreement with Heimann’s company to do some initial testing that will examine the heat content — the Btu per pound — along with the moisture and ash content when it is burned, says Warren Wood, Ameren’s vice president of external affairs, in a phone interview.

“The initial testing has been good,” says Wood. “But we have not done large scale testing yet.”

The goal is to co-fire 200,000 tons of biomass with coal a year, or 5 percent of Ameren’s current coal burn. That could happen in 2017 if the fuel costs can be brought down, he adds. At that point, Ameren would sign a 10-year contract.

“If we are we are seeing good boiler characteristics and no push back on price, we could expand the percentage,” Wood adds, noting that other power companies are also interested in this technology: “We could kickstart this nationally.”

Other utilities, meanwhile, are also pursuing biomass projects. Constellation, a subsidiary of Exelon Corp., is investing $200 million in a Georgia-based biomass facility that will produce 50 megawatts when it is completed in 2017. Under a 20-year power purchase agreement, Southern Company’s Georgia Power will buy all of the unit’s electricity while Proctor & Gamble Co. will purchase all of the steam that will be used to dry its paper products.

The unit will be fired with wood scraps from Georgia’s rich forestry — biomass materials that the state says must be cleaned up to allow those wooded acres to revitalize. By placing that sustainable fuel source in a new boiler, Constellation says that is producing the electricity to power homes minus much of the carbon. At the same time, the steam that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere will be captured and reused to complete a manufacturing process.

While the project is part of a renewable portfolio requirement in Georgia, it is also a company goal for Proctor & Gamble — to fuel itself by using 30 percent green energy by 2020. This project, which is in Albany, Ga., will get the consumer product giant half way there.

The Biomass Power Association says that its fuel comprises roughly 22 percent of the nation’s renewable energy usage, adding that it has grown by 15 percent a year since 2008.

Regardless of how the Clean Power Plan pans out in a restructured Supreme Court, coal generally still faces an uphill battle as the nation turns increasingly to cleaner fuels. Nevertheless, coal will still provide power both in the United States and abroad, necessitating that it become cleaner. Enter biomass, which has that potential if the technologies that would add to its oomph progress as hoped.

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