Here comes Big Biopower - What it means for Solar & Wind

September 26 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: General   Rating: 8 Hot

We have ‘Big Oil’, so why not ‘Big Biopower’? (And what does it mean for the solar and wind industry?)

Enter Adage (Chadds Ford, PA) a new joint venture biomass development company formed by nuclear energy vendor AREVA (Bethesda, MD) and electrical utility giant Duke Energy, N.C).

ADAGE will be focused on enabling green biopower energy solutions for the US electricity market tapping waste organic materials like wood chips.

BioPower via Waste to Energy?
Bio energy means many things. While most people think of biofuels from corn, this first generation ‘food crop’ source is not the future of bioenergy. (Don’t get distracted by corn ethanol, bio energy potential is vast!)

Real bio energy growth is likely to come from a combination of plant, algae/bacteria and organic waste sources. A leading ‘non-food’ crop resource is Jatropha, but biofuels can also use enzyme supported systems (cellulosic ethanol) or applying chemistry to create hydrogen rich fuels from waste streams.

Bio energy also uses the higher conversion efficiencies of carbon-eating algae to produce biodiesel, and hydrogen-breathing bacteria for electricity.

Adage’s bio source will be organic waste materials like wood chips and other combustible organic matter. It is a large utility scale waste to energy strategy. The company has plans to develop standards for a 50 megawatt (MW) plant that would feed directly into the US electrical grid. This biopower plant would deliver electricity to 40,000 households and avoid 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per year compared to coal.’

Organic material supplies would come from regional industrial suppliers with excess wood wastes and ‘forestry operations within about a 50-mile radius around the biomass power plant.

So Adage will develop projects in regions with well established industries that can deliver steady streams of organic waste. [And it is important to note that waste to energy strategies have an obvious limitation based on amount of waste available.)

‘Combustion() based BioPower, but Carbon Neutral
Today, electricity is produced by burning things. The energy released from burning off carbon-hydrogen bonds leads to steam that spins turbines to produce electricity. Adage’s form of ‘waste to energy’ is in essence – carbon neutral.

Adage will be burning (I am verifying this claim. See comment section) organic material (trees / plant material) resulting in CO2 emissions, but that carbon is recaptured by trees and plant life. (Assuming more trees, crops and plant life are replaced!)

It might sound sketchy, but the burning of biomass waste is much better than releasing the massive amount of energy of coal that have been locked away in ground deposits for millions of years. So it is a step forward!

Despite its carbon neutral approach, Big BioPower might be a hard pill to swallow for eco-purists which favors non combustion power generation of solar and wind. The prospect of ‘Big BioPower’ could bring an unexpected twist for solar and wind producers looking to tap ‘renewable energy’ credits for state utilities.

More on Big Biopower’s opportunities and challenges ahead for solar and wind

Opportunities – Greening Electrical Grid

The form of BioPower is ideal for the electric utilities sector and traditional base load strategies of delivering electricity. It is also a solid ‘renewable’ resource for regions that might not have ample solar or wind energy resources.

And it will help expand the base of ‘green’ jobs in regions that could use some positive pro-job news.

Challenges – Costs and Impact on Solar/Wind Sector
The energy roadmap for ‘waste to energy’ is not a simple story.

Organic waste does get absorbed into the marketplace. There are companies that utilize wood chips and organic matters. So not all wood chips end up in landfills.

Re-directing wood chips into power generation will likely translate into cost challenges for producers and higher than expected prices for customers. But time will tell if organic waste supplies can compete against other resources.

Biopower could also derail efforts for solar and wind. While more states are setting ‘clean’ and ‘renewable’ energy percentage targets for 2020, it is not a given that these ‘clean’ energy sources will come from the sun and wind.

If states classify biomass to energy under ‘green’ and ‘renewable’ power generation, it might deter investments in solar and wind power generation. So it is hard to imagine 100% support from other sectors.

But ‘Big Biopower’ is certainly a step forward. It helps to close a loop in the carbon cycle and expands our options for cleaner utility power generation. And electricity production could use some cleaner sources!

So we will be watching as this Energy Roadmap unfolds.

Image grendelkhan Flickr/CC-Remix

Comment Thread (5 Responses)

  1. The claim: ‘Combustion based BioPower, but Carbon Neutral‘ is ONLY true if the cost of replacing the “trees, crops and plant life” is paid by the power company burning the biomass. That needs to be included as part of the ‘cost’ for doing that particular business. Plus the energy and environmental costs [differential] associated with transporting the biomass to be burned.

    From only an environmental / carbon perspective, biomass that stays in a landfill is better than burning by however much carbon is ‘removed’ from the cycle. Once the impact of the additional land needed for the landfill is factored in, that may no longer be true.

    Where do those CO2 emission avoidance numbers come from? Are you saying that burning biomass to supply the energy for 40,000 households instead of burning coal to supply energy to those same households will result in 400,000 tons less CO2 released into the atmosphere? I doubt that biomass is that much more energy rich than coal. Carbon is carbon, whether in the form of coal, oil, or biomass. If it is solid or liquid form, it is not in the atmosphere contributing to the greenhouse effect. That said, it should be easier to keep carbon in coal in solid form versus biomass, since biomass is more ‘bio-degradable’ than coal.

    Posted by: mMerlin   September 27, 2008
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  2. Re: mMerlin Thank you for the well thought out comment—- agreed on most points! This is exactly the type of comment that I love to see here!

    - YES, the true ‘costs’ and claims of carbon neutral are based on reestablishing the biomass source. (e.g. planting more trees, grasses, et al.) I should have made that more clear. My expectation is that today’s timber industry is highly managed and that this was the case for industrial biomass waste source. It certainly isn’t the case for trees or green space taken down for suburban McMansions (etc.), but that isn’t the primary source. The amount of waste needed to make these plants work will have to come from steady local suppliers who I suspect replant their resources. But you are 100% right.

    - re: waste. First I don’t think most organic waste ends up landfills (but I’m not an expert in that industry). I imagine it ends up being integrated into other products.

    Regardless, burning biomass is not a solution. And I think this was one of my points of the article—it could be a distraction for solar/wind.

    Waste to energy systems are always limited in their impact. But they can deter from other alternative sources.

    And unless that biomass is secured beneath gas trapping materials, municipal solid waste landfills actually do emit CO2 via methane (‘green house’)gases over time. So it’s a bit more complicated than assuming they leave the carbon cycle in their ‘waste’ state. Life eats life. And waste streams area usually absorbed by the planet’s tiniest creatures who reassemble molecules.

    - Those CO2 numbers come straight from the company press release. The original post had a direct link.

    -Yes, I believe their claim meant that the CO2 emissions lower is less than coal.

    Now, I need to look more closely at their method—they might not be using combustion the biomass and instead using alt methods – pyrolysis (heating in absence of oxygen) or another method. So—good call. I need to look more closely and not assume combustion.

    -‘carbon is carbon’ I disagree there. The value of a fuel is based on its hydrogen content. So wood, coal, petroleum and natural gas are different. But your point is taken and again I think the secret here is going to be their form of conversion which might be more evolved than ‘coal fired’ plants.

    —I’m certainly not trying to become a Pro Biomass guy. My point was that solar and wind growth is likely to be challenged by ‘Big Biopower’

    The point is for renewables to watch out!

    There is a way to ‘green’ other sources accordingly to regulatory standards. You, myself or others might not like that—but Utility providers needing to satisfy ‘clean’ electricity credits might certainly look at local biomass as a source.

    I found the ‘big biopower’ company a big story. Very relevant to the future.

    I really appreciate the post—and this type of conversation to clarify messages.

    So please continue to comment – and/or contribute your own post. Thanks- Garry

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 27, 2008
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  3. This web site needs to improve the display of some content. That single line slider (that I see with google chrome) for your content about true costs is awkward to read.

    re: “distraction from solar/wind”: I’m not too worried about this type of ‘distraction’ AS LONG AS the complete / full costs are included. The real answer with ‘waste’ is to reduce, reuse, recycle it. Not burn it. I think you say the same. Burning / using for fuel / energy should be ‘last resort’, and counted against the carbon foot print of the original product, mitigated by whatever energy can be extracted in the process. I.E. If it is going to end up as CO2 / greenhouse gases anyway, sure burn or use other processing on it to get some useful energy from it and / or reduce the CO2 equivalent emissions.

    re: “secured beneath gas trapping materials”: that was why the qualifiers about “stays in” and “removed”, as well as “keep in solid form”

    re: “carbon is carbon”: I only intended to indicate that any form of carbon that is in the ground is not CO2 in the air and adding to greenhouse gases, and any source of carbon fuel that is used to produce energy + CO2, is still CO2 in the air. As you say, different hyrdocarbon sources have different energy content and usage efficiency. That was the “energy rich” reference (also energy density).

    re: “green and regulatory standards”: Creative bookkeeping. When the rules are used to ‘play’ the system, they need fixing. The standard should be based on total lifecycle and ‘best’ alternatives. If ‘clean’ credits are available while still producing greenhouse gases, or using “carbon neutral” generation to ‘offset’ dirty generation, there is a problem in the rules. The maximum that can do is to reduce the amount of emissions per total generated energy unit. Until the ‘dirty’ generation is reduced to zero.

    If ‘big bio’ from waste is really competition for solar, wind, other ‘clean’ energy, society is generating way to much waste. Given the [energy] fraction that I think can be recovered from the waste stream, versus the energy required in production of most products, I do not see this a serious challenge [without ‘warped’ accounting rules]. When looking at only biomass waste, maybe. Much of the input energy was free [sunlight].

    Posted by: mMerlin   September 28, 2008
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  4. mMerlin – agreed!

    So when are you going to write a post?!! Look forward to it!

    And we’re checking on Chrome user experience.. thanks!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 29, 2008
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  5. I found an article for an alternative to using waste biomass for energy generation, whether burning it or something else. Which is ‘better’ overall depends on factors neither article includes. Energy recovery, emissions, soil and crop improvement. Both would seem have the same cost issue with transporting the waste to where it can be ‘used’. Alternative To Burning: Environmentally Sound Disposal For Wood Chips

    Posted by: mMerlin   October 07, 2008
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