Trends in U.S. Biomass Energy Production

Emerson’s Dennis Tkacs, a strategic program manager in the Power & Water Solutions division, shares his thoughts on the use and trends biomass-based energy production in the United States.

While a significant amount of energy is generated from biomass, not too many new plants are being built. From my observations, there are many reasons for this. When I review a biomass project database, two stand out—economics and risk.

It seems that an inordinate number of projects were cancelled mainly due to economic reasons. With wholesale utility rates being significantly lower than expected, companies simply cancelled many projects because they couldn’t achieve the business cases under which the plants were originally designed. Other reasons for the significant number of plants on hold, include legislative and regulatory risk. Regulators have begun to question whether biomass is a renewable at all. Massachusetts planned on revising its renewable portfolio standards based on a study that concluded that whole trees, burned as a biomass fuel, produced more carbon emissions over a forty year period than did coal-fired generating plants. There are court challenges to biomass plants such as the one filed in North Carolina contesting whether the state’s 2007 energy law intended that whole trees be considered biomass, or whether the intent was to have only wood waste and logging debris be included. The court weighed in on this one saying that, yes, whole trees were biomass under the statute. And finally, there is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s three-year deferral of global greenhouse gas (GHG) permitting. While the long term may hold a more favorable treatment for biomass, many in the near term are sitting on the sidelines as a hedge against any potential risk.

As if financial and regulatory risks weren’t enough, there is also the issue of fuel logistics. Burning wood waste and paper mill by-products is largely a local affair, with minimal transportation and availability issues. With large, utility scale plant conversions; this isn’t necessarily the case. In most parts of the country, wood waste is not plentiful. Coal and oil have well established logistics; wood fuels, not necessarily so. Wood fuels, for example, aren’t readily available by the barge load and have to be stored under cover. This imposes practical limits on the amount of generation that can be done in a given area. If one seeks to convert a particularly large coal-fired plant then the fuel issue becomes even more acute. This would require wood fuel to be trucked in over long distances and/or whole tree clear-cutting to ensure an adequate fuel source, both of which would surely foster public and legislative opposition.

This seems to bode ill for biomass, but one need only to look to Europe for a successful model. The Europeans seem to balance the need for green energy with the need to address fuel availability considerations. They have been co-firing biomass for over ten years and have largely been successful. Co-firing is a viable answer in the US as well. By co-firing, for example, 10%, of the energy intake for a utility boiler as biomass, one reduces emissions and generates green energy.

Posted Thursday, August 18th, 2011 under Energy.