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Friday, December 28, 2012


This is the third part of my renewable energy year end summary.  Today, biomass, and really, for this particular form, the news is not particularly good.  Let's start with how much more biomass is used compared to geothermal, solar and wind:

(If you can't read those numbers, just click on what is called a spaghetti graph.)  I'll continue this series with ocean energy, hydroelectricity, nuclear power, hydrogen and more exotic options first thing next year.

Starting with some positives:

  -  there are nearly one million pounds of biomass growing for each human being

  -  25,000 EJ = energy stored in terrestrial biomass (plus there is aquatic biomass)

  -  3,000 EJ/year = rate of additional energy storage/year by land biomass

  -  400 EJ/year = TOTAL consumption of ALL forms of energy

Thus, there is a lot of biomass growing on Planet Earth.  That is at least one piece of good news.  However...

Biomass Industry 2012 Review: A Mixed Bag

The dominant, and negative, theme this year was regulatory uncertainty by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Worse was the abundance of natural gas from fracking.

Can you believe that the largest commercial biomass electrical generation facility (above)  was dedicated this year, in Nacogdoches, Texas?  The largest and only 100 MW, which cost $500 million.  Alas, it has been shut down since September because of that fracking natural gas.

A positive about biomass is something I would not have expected.  Biomass crops are now being pelletized in America (above) and sold to Europe.  The Continent, bless their souls, is environmentally progressive, and is actually converting coal boilers to burn biomass, and pellets to them makes sense.  The point is, of course, that coal is bad and biomass is carbon neutral, meaning the plant took carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to make biomass.  Ah, but this can happen when you try something new.

Two months after commissioning, the largest of those biomass fed electricity facilities suffered a terrible fire, losing two of the three production units.  That's not all, unfortunately.  Belgium's 590 MW coal-to-biomass plant experienced a major fire, the 810 MW biomass facility in Denmark was stricken by one in the conveyor system, and closed down.  Plus this happened to a green pellet operation near London (right).

Are you getting an impression that anytime you try to burn biomass, you can't control it?  There are various reasons, but when I worked in the sugar industry, we were plagued by something called spontaneous combustion.  The combination of moist bagasse and the natural oxidative self-heating of this material resulted in a lot of fires during the offseason.  Our worst nightmare was trying to restart a sugar factory with no bagasse.

Even in Hawaii, biomass to electricity is not exactly embraced by the people.  I've received several pleas from local leaders living in Pepeekeo to help stop the 21.5 MW Hu Honua Bioenergy Project.  The facility itself is 1.7 miles outside of the village, but emotions are high.  I suggested that this was better than coal, and for the community to gain some concessions from the operators, such as a lower electricity rate, for Hawaii needs to get serious about shifting away from fossil fuels.  However, I can understand their plight, for the emissions from the stacks are an environmental hazard.  Although this project will use trees, when I worked for C. Brewer, cane fires meant a lot of ash in the air and hordes of fleeing rats.

Want more bad news?  The state of Massachusetts released standards requiring biomass plants to generate power at at least 50% efficiency for only half the renewable energy credit (REC), and 60%+ for the full REC.  Massachusetts is the grinch, but the only state so far.

Anyway why waste biomass for electricity when our greater need is transport fuel.  The worst of all, of course, is to process biomass into a liquid fuel, then combust this liquid to produce electricity.  I could say dumb, dumb, dumb.  But some utilities took this pathway, and no surprise at all, couldn't find a competitive supplier, so they converted to some cheaper fossil fuel option, getting around certain environmental/carbon dioxide restrictions.  Smart, smart, smart...but conniving.

So let's start with bioethanol, which now accounts for 10% of U.S. gasoline consumption, up from 1% in 2001.  Expect a drop, if not precipitously, because the federal tax credit was not renewed this year.  In this interim, our taxes paid $20 billion to oil companies and large ag operations.  Mind you, I gladly spend around $400/gallon for the ethanol in scotch, so this biofuel does have redeeming virtues.

In Hawaii, Aina Kono Pono, for example, proposed a biomass to electricity and biofuels project in Kau, specifically at the factory site of my first job after graduating from college.  The Public Utilities Commission turned it down because it was too expensive.  The company said their fuel would only add a third of a cent per kilowatt hour to rates, but, the reality is that this first effort will not be able to produce a liquid biofuel for under $2/gallon.  I think $4/gallon would be difficult.  The company filed a second attempt in August of this year, and the "people" remain against it!  I think the main reason is that they fear their electricity bill will further increase.  At some point the consumer will need to want to sacrifice for a greener environment, but the day is not yet here, especially when the current residents of the Big Island ALREADY PAY 250% the national average.  However, if the focus is changed to ONLY biofuels, then the market will decide the fate.  But to repeat, what worries me about this process is that Microwave Catalytic Depolymerization sounds awfully energy intensive, and therefore expensive.  But they should know what they're doing, so the PUC should wish them well.

Moving on--and, honest, I AM PRO-BIOFUELS--the green idiot, or hero, depending on how you look at this, is the U.S. military.  Yes, they should take a pioneering attitude on this transition, but for the U.S. Navy to pay $28/gallon for biofuel (from a range of sustainables ranging from chicken fat to algae to whatever), during a portion of their RimPac exercises in Hawaii, ticked off the Republicans, and I don't blame them for trying to prohibit this extravagant practice.  One rejoinder was that fuel can cost $400/gallon in remote regions, so anything cheaper than that locally produced can be a priority need.  Sure...maybe for ethanol imbibition...but there are smarter ways to use government funds.

Certainly, there is too much of an emphasis on electricity, and we need to do a lot more for liquid biofuels.  But a steady billion dollars/year for research into biomethanol and the direct methanol fuel cell can get us closer to ground transport sustainability than continuing to support a flawed bioethanol pathway and paying exorbitant sums for ridiculously expensive exotic options.  Sure, also spend the money on genetic engineering to improve bioconversion science and solidify the engineering fundamentals for the production of algae, but how our country did everything wrong in this field is criminal.  My views can be found in the following Huffington Post articles:

The next of this renewable energy series will be on ocean energy, early next year.

There is a looming cyclone forming south of the Solomons, but there should be no danger to populated islands.


1 comment:

Hornbeam said...

There are better biomass to biofuels tech, and even one developed in England to take water vapor and Co2 to make synthetic fuels comparable to "fossil fuels" at pumps, of ASTM quality. I may be heading back to the Big Island to get my project underway near Pepeekeo, and welcome dialog with anyone who wants to learn about advanced tech available.