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Green Light Requisites for Biopower

I hail from Wisconsin, so whenever I hear of a biomass power project being developed there, my interest is piqued. On a recent family trip back to my old stomping grounds of central Wisconsin, I heard coffee shop talk of a new biopower plant being built near the city of Rothschild. So I did a little investigating because I’m always amazed at the circumstances that allow or deny the development of a successful biomass power project. Through the years, I have devised some simple requisite conditions for success.

At least in the current U.S. power environment, here are my proposed simple requisite conditions: 1) competitive biomass feedstock cost, 2) brokerable biomass feedstock supply, 3) financial incentives, 4) reliable conversion technology, and 5) a committed utility and supportive community. The Wisconsin biopower plant gives us a good model example for what I see as having all the correct pieces of the biopower success puzzle in place.

First of all, the cost and supply of biomass feedstocks (Requisites 1 and 2) that can be brokered and guaranteed go hand in hand. For many business scenarios involving biomass, the resource is discovered at seemingly the right cost and the nearby community gets excited about consuming a few megawatts of green power. But then the reality of harvesting, transporting, and processing that biomass from field or forest to fuel silo at the power plant kills the entire venture. Sometimes, even though the feedstock reliability and cost look good, once the utility announces a higher electricity cost relative to established fossil-based electricity, the customer cries foul and the project never starts.

In the case of the Wisconsin power plant, the biomass will consist of residues from sawmills and pulp mills, which usually implies lower cost. It will be facilitated by a paper mill infrastructure that has decades of operation and experience in this region, which usually implies sustainability. This power plant is connected to an industry that has been buying and selling forest wood for over a century, which usually implies a greater ability for this biomass resource to be brokered. I remember the smell of paper mills as a kid, and my father once owned a tract of northern Wisconsin forest that he had “pulped out,” one summer, as he would say. That was slang for having the timber harvested as pulpwood for paper production. This infrastructure goes back decades and provides assurances to banks, communities, and power providers so that they are more apt to get behind a biopower project. This type of infrastructure or the ability to create it at a reasonable cost is essential for success. I think some of these principles can apply to other feedstocks.

That covers Requisites 1–3 and part of 5. For Requisite 4 (reliable conversion technology), the $268 million 50-MW plant is being spearheaded by Domtar Corporation. This company already operates 15 pulp and paper mills in North America, with the majority of the process steam and heat requirements fueled by renewable fuels such as biomass and black liquor, a product of papermaking. The power plant will use conventional small steam boiler combustion technology and emission control technology that have been around for decades.

Finally, I need to delve into incentives, since they are almost always necessary to make biopower projects work (Requisite 5). Since 2005, the state of Wisconsin requires investor-owned electric utilities, municipal electric utilities, and rural electric cooperatives (electric providers) to meet a gradually increasing percentage of their retail sales with qualified renewable resources. The current state renewable portfolio standard (RPS) establishes the goal that by the end of 2015, 10% of all electric energy consumed in the state will be renewable energy. We Energies and Domtar announced this project over 5 years ago as a step toward this RPS goal. Another incentive that is aiding this project and others like it is the U.S. federal 1.1¢/kWh production tax credit which has been around in some shape or form since the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The recent fiscal cliff deal of early 2013 has essentially extended this credit through 2014.

In the end, at least in my opinion, this project should end as a renewable power success story since it has all of my prescribed requisite conditions. It might seem nerdy to my family, but on my next visit back to the homeland, I just might stop by to get a tour.

By Chris J. Zygarlicke, Deputy Associate Director for Research, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) 

Around the World in 7 days

Jason Laumb, Senior Research Manager, and Josh Stanislowski, Research Manager, flew to Melbourne, Australia, in December to conduct a full-day short course on coal gasification technologies. Laumb also presented a keynote address at a full-day seminar on coal to products in Melbourne the next day.

The short course was sponsored by Brown Coal Innovation Australia (BCIA), a nonprofit organization tasked with investing proactively in the development of technologies and people that broaden the use of brown coal for a sustainable future (BCIA Web site).

“BCIA is similar to our Lignite Energy Council in North Dakota. It funds research for furthering the use of brown coal in Australia,” said Laumb. “Course participants came from a wide range of occupations: university researchers, technology vendors, consultants, and even some business people for whom this was their first exposure to gasification.”

The course is designed to provide an overview of the diverse nature of available gasification processes and technologies, depending on feedstocks, products produced, and environmental goals. The course covers commercial technologies, end products, and cost analysis aspects.

Australia has about 25% of the world’s known reserves of brown coal, which is a low-rank coal similar to North Dakota lignite. The biggest challenge with brown coal, according to Laumb, is that it can have over 60% moisture. The coal is difficult to burn, pulverize, and feed. Laumb said the Australians have done beneficiation work over the years both with thermal processes, where the coal is dried before gasification, and with different mechanical processes, where the moisture is removed up-front of putting the coal into the gasification system.

Laumb’s keynote address was on coal to products in the United States, what past coal-to-products projects have been, and what the future looks like for coal to products. Potential products include electric power, liquid fuels, chemicals, fertilizers, synthetic gases, natural gas, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and other materials. Laumb said the true path forward will depend greatly on CO2 policy.

“The purpose of our trip was to present the gasification course, but we were able to make use of that time when we were in country to meet with as many people and groups as we could,” said Laumb. “We had meetings set up in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney with potential partners, some of whom are interested in our gasification testing capabilities and some of whom are doing work similar to the EERC’s work with CO2 capture and sequestration, so we looked at ways we could enhance each other’s programs.”
While it was an extremely productive trip, Laumb said the jet lag caught up with him when he got home.

“It was a total of nine flights in 7 days for 19,000 flight miles round-trip, which is nearly equivalent to flying around the world,” Laumb noted. “It’s a 15-hour flight between Sydney and Los Angeles, with a 7-hour layover in LA. Josh and I watched a lot of football in the airport.”