Written by: Ken Silverstein
February 14, 2016
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.
Trucks deliver raw lumber yard at the Resolute Forest Products mill in Thunder Bay, Canada, Ontario, on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. Resolute Forest Products, the largest mill east of the Rockies, sends 90 percent of lumber produced south to supply the demand for housing construction for the U.S. The mill is also one of the few plants that creates wood pellets, or biomass, used to create energy in biomass reactors as well as supply some of the largest newspapers in the American Midwest, including Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg
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.