Biomass Utilization: Options to Realize Maximum Value

The success of biomass power facilities may increasingly depend on greater efficiency in operations and optimal utilization of our fuels. Fortunately, there are many opportunities in these areas.
By Bob Cleaves | September 05, 2018

This month’s Biomass Magazine theme is centered on feedstock—sizing, handling and sourcing. I wanted to highlight another relevant topic that I think goes well with the feedstock theme: maximizing the utilization of the fuels used at biomass power facilities.

Most of us in the biomass power sector are contending with ever-tightening margins. The rapid growth of heavily subsidized wind and solar, along with advancements in procuring natural gas, have had the effect of lowering power prices. In some cases, they have dropped beyond the point that biomass power can be sustained with profit, or even at cost. If these trends continue, the success of biomass power facilities may increasingly depend on greater efficiency in operations and optimal utilization of our fuels. Fortunately, there are many opportunities in these areas that BPA members are considering for additional revenue streams.

Thermal utilization: After achieving goals to meet ambitious renewable power standards, some corporations and NGOs are looking to renewably sourced thermal energy as the next benchmark for sustainability. The Renewable Thermal Collaborative, launched within the past year by the World Wildlife Fund in partnership with several large corporations including Procter & Gamble, GM and Mars, seeks to reduce carbon emissions through the use of renewable energy for heating and cooling applications. Partnering existing biomass power facilities with the development of new factories, warehouses or data server facilities would be a natural way to take advantage of the heat released by biomass facilities, while helping corporations further reduce their carbon impact. Attracting new, heat-devouring businesses to pair with biomass facilities may be a ripe policy angle to explore with state governments, which have the means to attract new businesses with tax credits and other incentives, and would surely like to take credit for bringing jobs and economic development.

Colocation: Colocating with a corporation outside the realm of biomass may be out of the question, based on lack of supportive state policy or other reasons. However, colocation with a biofuels producer or other user of low-value organic materials might make more sense. Combining two businesses that use similar feedstocks can create economies of scale, streamlining both businesses. Several of our members are exploring this opportunity, and we are aware of entrepreneurs working on equipment that will make it easier and cost-effective to combine biomass power with biofuels development.

Carbon capture: Following the so-called 45Q carbon capture tax credit passed earlier this year by Congress, biomass facilities should begin to consider the possibility of capturing carbon for geological storage or other uses. While the technology is still likely too expensive for most biomass power facilities to implement, it’s probably only a few years until it’s widely accessible. The 45Q tax credit will only help speed up this process by offering a credit of up to $50 per ton of carbon captured—not an insignificant amount—which will help offset the cost of the technology.

Biochar: In a similar vein to carbon capture, another byproduct of biomass power facilities may soon gain in value. By adjusting the temperature at which fuel is burned, biomass power producers can create a byproduct called biochar. More substantial than the fly ash produced from biomass burned at higher temperatures, biochar has many potential applications. Depending on the content and acidity of the biochar, which can be tested via a tool on the International Biochar Initiative website, it can be used as a soil amendment to help retain moisture and nutrients, as an additive to animal feed to aid in digestion, or in wastewater treatment for odor control. While biochar has yet to catch on in a meaningful way, it holds a lot of promise and could represent a lucrative opportunity for biomass power producers.

Finally, I’d like to note that Biomass Power Association has created a new, affordable level of membership. We are welcoming biomass industry vendors of all types as sponsors to our organization, no matter where your company falls on the supply chain. If you support the biomass power industry in any way, whether as a fuel supplier, equipment manufacturer or another type of vendor, please get in touch with us to learn about how you can get more exposure to potential clients and support the biomass power industry in its policy initiatives

Author: Bob Cleaves
President, Biomass Power Association