Webinar addresses elements of biomass power project development

By Lisa Gibson
Posted December 16, 2009, at 2:54 p.m. CST

In developing a biomass power project, do not underestimate the permitting timeline, Rich Hardegger, of Barr Engineering Company, told attendees of a Dec. 16 Webinar, Mulch to Megawatts, hosted by Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., Barr Engineering Co. and Cook Engineering.

The Webinar discussed several key issues in biomass power project development, including market assessment, permitting, technologies and a financial analysis. "As a rule of thumb, this could take a while," said Todd Guerrero, attorney with Fredrikson & Byron, of the project sequence from beginning to end. Typically, the process can take up to, or more than, two years.

Environmental approval alone can take from six months to two years, Hardegger said. He recommends developers hold permitting agency meetings, along with planning for the discovery process, as policies change continuously. "Expect detours and iterations," he cautioned. Managing the public review process with a public relations plan also is important. "You'll greatly increase your chances of success if you have carefully implemented a public relations plan," he said.

Elements that can affect the permitting timeline include location, size of project, seasonal effects, completeness of information and the public review process. "It can take significant time both to get the comments and respond to the comments," Hardegger said. Ninety-five percent of the public may be supportive of the plant, but a 5 percent opposition can stop it, he said. The public may not like it, but if informed, they can accept it. Early in the process, it's crucial to make transparency and public relations plans that determine the hot-button issues, he added.

Current market penetration shows 3 percent of energy is generated from renewable sources like biomass and wind. Coal makes up almost half, at 48.5 percent, 21 percent is from natural gas, 19 percent from nuclear and 6 percent from conventional hydro, according to Guerrero. Of the renewable energy's 3 percent contribution, 45 percent was biomass in 2008, with wind making up 42 percent. In 2009 (through August), biomass was down to 39 percent and wind up to 48 percent.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, however, expects biomass electricity generation to increase. "There is in fact a forecast to show biomass will be increasing in the future," Guerrero said. Development is driven mainly by federal incentives, such as tax credits and cash grants, along with state renewable portfolio standards.

Bruce Browers, of Barr Engineering, addressed key elements in choosing a site for a biomass power plant, saying a 10-acre minimum is required for facilities producing 20 to 40 megawatts (MW), which is the determined optimal size by Fredrikson & Byron researchers. Site selection is driven by on-site fuel storage requirements, he said, and a flat, dry location is required. Construction lay down is also an important element to consider.
Existing infrastructure on a site is crucial, Browers said, citing major road access, electricity transmission and water supply. Natural gas for start-up and back-up fuel is also an important consideration.

Browers also discussed fuel assessments, saying it's the primary driver of project feasibility and economics. Proximity to use, seasonal supply fluctuations and the risk of supply and price fluctuations are key elements of an assessment, along with quantity and quality. "All biofuels are not created equal," he said. Macro- and micro-level studies need to be conducted to determine aggregate volumes of biomass, identify suppliers and fuel quantity and quality, along with establishing letters of interest.

Technology is another important aspect of biomass project development and William McLean, of Cook Engineering, discussed fuel handling, combustion and gasification technologies, along with steam cycles and cooling systems. To plan for fuel handling, an understanding of the fuel is crucial, he said, citing moisture content and Btu. Implications for the fuel system choice include transportation, storage inventories and cold-weather engineering and design.

In a financial analysis, Barr Engineering determined that plants smaller than 20 MW have a high and uneconomic capital cost per kilowatt hour, while plants that produce more than 40 MW have high transportation costs, Browers said. Combined heat and power can be a large financial benefit and facilities smaller than 20 MW would likely require it, along with a low-cost fuel.