Biomass Bonanza

Attendance at the 2010 International Biomass Conference & Expo mirrored growth in the industry and the excitement generated by the resurgence in renewable energy.
By Anna Austin and Lisa Gibson
Biomass Magazine's International Biomass Conference & Expo drew 1,700 people and nearly 300 exhibitors to the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis May 4-6. Attendance at the annual event doubled compared with the first event held in 2008.

BBI International Vice President Tom Bryan kicked off the general session May 5 by welcoming the attendees and introducing the keynote speaker Jack Oswald, founder and CEO of Syngest Inc.

Oswald provided the audience with a vision of the company's Cornucopia Biorefinery, which is designed to simultaneously produce food, fertilizer and fuel, using every component of an ear of corn. "Our integrated biorefinery model will put an end to the food-versus-fuel debate," he said. "Now you can have your fuel and eat it too." The biorefinery would produce several products including food-grade corn oil, high-protein food for human consumption, animal feed, butanol and biochar.

Following the keynote was a panel discussion about biomass policy objectives and how biomass organizations can work together to educate and influence lawmakers.

Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association, said that when approaching lawmakers on Capitol Hill, biomass proponents need to remember that most don't care about biomass, and to focus instead on energy independence, in general, despite the fact that without biomass, the country will not reach its renewable goals.

Cleaves was one of six speakers on the Biomass Priorities on the Hill general session panel. While biomass comprises 50 percent of all renewable energy produced in the U.S., many people don't know what it is, Cleaves told the crowd. The BPA is rolling out a communications strategy to remedy that problem, as biomass's carbon neutrality is under scrutiny. Smokestacks can lead to misinterpretations of the benefits of biomass, as other renewable sources don't employ them, he said.

Another priority of the BPA is to retroactively reinstate the production tax credit, which expired at the end of 2009 and is crucial for development and operation of the industry. Without it, the existing fleet of biomass power facilities will likely fail and the industry will not grow, he said. An extension of the credit is included in the American Workers, State and Business Relief Act.

Also included in the bill is an extension of the biodiesel tax credit. Shelby Neal, director of government affairs for the National Biodiesel Board, said a retroactive reinstatement of the credit claims are priorities one, two and three for the NBB. "The credit has been extremely successful," he said, adding that the negative effects of its expiration have been apparent in plants being idled, reduced production, layoffs, and plants teetering on the edge of solvency. Neal encouraged attendees to call their representatives and ask for reinstatement of the credit. Geoff Cooper, vice president of research and analysis for the Renewable Fuels Association, said the credit is a priority of his, also, along with extension of the cellulosic ethanol tax credit and the volumetric excise tax credit for ethanol, paid to gasoline vendors who sell ethanol blends.

Cleaves urged everyone in the industry to get involved, saying Congress relies on the private sector to come forward and emphasize needed adjustments. Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, agreed and said the industry needs a harmonized voice for change.

Panelist Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algal Biomass Organization, is advocating algae as a feedstock for biofuels as well as other coproducts. Production mandates similar to the ones for cellulosic ethanol would incentivize algal biomass development and utilization. "We're looking for parity from a feedstock perspective," she said.

Charlie Niebling, chairman of the board of directors for the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, said his organization is also focused on advocacy, but for awareness and recognition of thermal applications of biomass. There's a tremendous opportunity to provide heat and power to residential, industrial and commercial facilities, he said.

With so many legislative priorities to balance, it's important to simplify as much as possible, Neal said. Cleaves added that being practical in the requests is crucial, ensuring the industry isn't asking for too much at once. "Sometimes we feel like we're just hanging on for the ride," Rosenthal said, adding that the ABO is aiming to have full-time representation in Washington by next year. "I suggest we walk before we run and pick a no-brainer," Niebling said.

Power Producers Take the Stage

The future cost of CO2 is looming over power utilities. To avoid penalties and keep customer costs to a minimum, it's imperative that utilities begin preparing for a carbon-constrained regulatory environment, according to Great River Energy Manager of Business Development Sandra Broekema.

Broekema and others representing the Midwest's largest power providers presented their views about biomass power challenges and benefits during the general session panel.

GRE, a generation and transmission cooperative that serves 1.7 million people in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, has been working for quite some time to avoid future carbon expenses that will be imposed on utilities, Broekema said, costs which would be handed down to customers. "Looking at our generation portfolio, we have a fair amount of coal-fired generation which emits twice the CO2 footprint compared to a natural gas plant," she said. "If a carbon tax/cost is imposed, that's going to impact our members more than other utilities around the U.S. "

Broekema said besides keeping costs low, another primary concern of GRE is helping to reach Minnesota's renewable energy standard of 25 percent by 2020. "We're on pace to meet that," she said. The cooperative is especially interested in biomass cofiring because it represents the opportunity for dispatchable power. "Wind and solar do not, so you can't cost effectively manage that with energy demands," she said.

GRE is working on plans to construct a 99-megawatt (MW) combined-heat-and-power plant in Spiritwood, N.D., that would produce cellulosic ethanol and a lignin pellet byproduct. For the past two years, GRE has been evaluating available biomass feedstocks within a 50-mile radius of the Spiritwood site to potentially cofire the plant. "From a broad perspective of what's available, we found not much goes to waste in North Dakota," Broekema said. "For example, a large potato processing plant and malting plant in the immediate area are already selling their waste streams."

Cofiring the Spiritwood plant with 10 percent biomass at 99 MW would require about 70,000 tons per year of raw biomass, or 10 tons per hour, assuming 5,000 Btu per pound, for a continuous operation. If GRE utilized crop residue, about 10,000 acres would be needed to supply the plant, according to Broekema.

Once a feedstock source is secured, however, operational challenges remain. "There's a level of confidence that says you can cofire 5 to 10 percent biomass without offering huge operational challenges," Broekema said. "They [biomass crops] are more variable than the coal feedstock we're used to-by season, the soils they're grown in, variations in yearly rainfall and speciation in the crop that you're looking at. For energy grasses, data just isn't available on a widespread basis."

During biomass crop comparison tests, Broekema said in some samples, the alkali and moisture content varied by more than 100 percent. "Biomass has some inherent composition issues that may cause operational problems, and we're concerned about corrosion and emission issues," she said. "Alkali can cause slagging of the molten ash in the boilers, causing unplanned power outages, and certain biomass has high silica content and can be erosive in a high-velocity boiler situation."

Alliant Energy's Manager of Biofuels Development Bill Johnson said the driving force in the company's biomass utilization strategy is also to adequately prepare for future carbon regulations. Rather than developing new facilities, Alliant is identifying existing facilities that are the most compatible with biomass in order to modify or expand its capacity. Alliant currently generates 71 percent of its kilowatt hours from coal at 188 plants across Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, requiring about 17 million tons of coal annually.

Echoing Broekema's sentiments, Johnson pointed out that switching to biomass may not be as easy as it is perceived. "These plants were designed to burn coal," he said, pointing out that a multitude of vastly ranging questions surround biomass cofiring or conversions-from changes in fuel density, size, flow characteristics, durability and supply-as opposed to coal's consistency.

Johnson said one of Alliant's plants in Wisconsin has been permitted to test burn biomass feedstocks, and has experimented with 22 different fuels. "One of the things we've learned is that if we pellet, we minimally touch the product 15 times up to as much as 21 times," he said. "If you're not adding value when you touch something you're adding cost, so it became imperative for us to look at ways to reduce cost to aggregators to reduce fuel costs."

Johnson said Alliant came to the conclusion that by densifying material in the field, handling could be reduced by 30 to 50 percent, which would drive down cost and allow material to be far more affordable. "We're trying a minimum of a 20 percent cofire and would like to move to 40 to 50 percent," he said. "But first we need to further reduce costs and develop trust with our landowners, producers and foresters in the region."

Harnessing the Power of MSW

Different biomass gasification technologies produce varying results, and which a buyer should select largely depends on how they will use the synthesis gas, according to Karl Schoene, CEO of InEnTec, who participated in a waste-to-energy panel at the conference. After discussing basic gasification processes, he outlined several factors to consider when selecting an appropriate gasification technology. "How the syngas will be used sets the requirement," he said. "If you're using a catalyst bed, it has to be very clean. If you're doing a direct burn, you don't want a lot of halogens. You also have to know the contents of the feedstock beyond hydrocarbons and carbohydrates as it affects what goes into the residual solids."

InEnTec owns a Plasma Enhanced Melter technology that utilizes a fixed-bed down-draft gasifier. The syngas that is produced is much cleaner than up-draft processes in terms of light vaporizables, according to Schoene, and is suitable for use with catalytic conversion to liquid fuel products. He said PEM is highly tolerant of heavy metals and other difficult contaminates, produces a recyclable solid residual, and possesses low-cooling water requirements and a scalable design.

Scott Hughes, chief operating officer for Visiam, described his company's biomass treatment and waste recovery process as a technological breakthrough. "We can take mixed municipal solid waste (MSW) and recover all of the resources to utilize for other applications," he said.

Visiam's Vacuum Explosion Process is patented and proven for the separation of organics from MSW and increasing the yield rates of processed biomass, Hughes said. Visiam built a 250-ton-per-week pilot plant in Shakopee, Minn., in 2005, and has successfully tested 15 different feedstocks. "One of the things that we've seen is that by running regular yard waste through the vessel, there's about a 30 to 40 percent increase in sugar fermentation," he said.

Larry Link, consultant for Novaspect, touched on the aspects of combustion optimization of MSW. "A big thing we need to focus our efforts on is reducing emissions at waste incineration plants," he said. "We need less corrosive gases, less emissions and less ash disposal."

Waste incineration plants face many challenges, such as measuring the weight of the fuel going into the plant, variations in Btu content, bridging, clogging and uneven conveyor fills, Link said. He said there are two main areas for optimization, one being bed management. "You must maintain a continuous depth across the bed-not even but continuous- in order to respond to load changes," he said. "If it's too thick of a bed, there will be problems with the undergrade air getting through and you may get slagging on top of the bed. If the bed gets too thin, holes will be blown in it and the grate temperatures will be affected."

The air system-undergrate and overfire air-is the second optimization area, according to Link. "Most refuse-derived fuel units have been retrofitted and because of that, the overfire air systems aren't adequate," he said. "A correct and coordinated ratio of overfire to undergrate air is critical for good combustion, and only requires minor changes for fuel variations after initial set up."

Roger Nichols, president of eNRG Solutions, echoed Schoene's notions about the importance of being particular when evaluating gasification technologies. "All gasifiers aren't alike," he said. The gasifier eNRG owns was designed by ICM Inc. and converts MSW into steam, electricity, heat or biofuels. A typical 18 MW 500-ton-per-day system has no visible emissions, a wet electrostatic precipitator on the back end to produce a very clean syngas, minimum fuel-size reduction requirements and waste heat recovery, Nichols said.

Nichols pointed out that the amount of MSW generated each year is increasing along with the population. "Waste utilization is an area seeing a lot of activity right now," he said. "Greenhouse gas reduction concerns require modern approaches [to processing waste], as incineration is now perceived as a dirty process. We're going to run out of land space, so sooner or later we'll have to deal with it."

Waste Management is Energy Management

Although the Midwest lags behind the rest of the U.S. in production and use of biogas for energy, Wisconsin is the exception, according to Amanda Bilek, energy policy specialist for the Great Plains Institute. "Biogas is a tremendous economic opportunity," she said. "We believe there is a lot of room to grow and we're only just getting started," she said.

There are barriers, however, to scaling up biogas production and use, including public policies, which are possibly the most important; few formal organizations and little advocacy presence such as the recently formed American Biogas Council; technical research; new development models; and the fact that the emphasis now is on electricity production from biogas, but there is a much wider window of opportunity, Bilek said.

GPI is working on a policy report due in July identifying current policies that incentivize biogas production and use, recommending tweaks to current policy and introducing new and useful policies. Existing policies, which Bilek referred to as "best in class," include the Rural Energy for America Program, state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and voluntary electricity tariff programs by utilities. One policy the report will identify that needs tweaking is the production tax credit, an extension of which is included in the American Workers, State and Business Relief Act.

Proposed policies that need a push include a federal RPS, as many in the biomass industry, along with other renewable industries, have repeatedly emphasized. But that might not be the best action for biogas use, Bilek said, adding that a biogas production and incentive act could be the game changer, along with a federal climate bill. "A climate bill would no doubt make an impact on the industry," she said.

New policies that need a champion include advanced renewable and feed-in tariffs, and an enhanced RPS, which would expand qualifying renewable resources to include biogas injected into the natural gas pipeline.

Nick Nelson, president of Midwest Biogas LLC and Welcome BioEnergy, shared some strategies that Midwest Biogas has identified to optimize centralized anaerobic digestion (AD) systems, making them more appealing to a wider audience. "It's quite daunting how many factors have to be managed for a centralized anaerobic digester," he said. Areas that need to be optimized include substrate blend, procurement and delivery, process flows, construction costs, and delivery of the energy produced, among others.

Developers need to consider several factors, such as whether shop-fabricated equipment is better for their specific project, he said. "Will a more expensive name brand component reduce your capital cost?" he asked. Managing substrate delivery routes is optimal, as is testing substrates and determining which kinds to use. "What wastes are others paying to get rid of?" he said. In addition, the end-user of the energy needs to be close to the operation, which also allows for a competitive delivery cost basis.
Panelist Douglas Goodale, bioenergy project manager and principal investigator for SUNY Cobleskill, focused his presentation on the research and development of a rotary kiln gasifier. The system, under research and development by SUNY with the help of other partners, could be a solution for using animal waste instead of just throwing it on the land, he said.

The rotary kiln, as the name suggests, has a natural rotation providing agitation of feedstock at high temperatures. In addition, the system sits horizontally with a slight slope, contrary to conventional vertically designed gasifiers. The rotary kiln design allows for complete conversion of biomass to syngas and is able to accept a wide variety of feedstock shapes and sizes without affecting conversion efficiency, he said.

"The rotary kiln is an efficient method of turning animal waste into electricity," Goodale said. One dry ton of cow manure has a value of 10 million Btu; a value nutrient supply of $56 when spread on land; and an electricity value of $70, he cited. "Think of the day when farmers are bringing their manure to the rotary kiln center," he said. In addition, that one dry ton of cow manure has a combined-heat-and-power value of $225, he said, adding that the heat produced is just as important as the syngas.

According to Goodale, the U.S. Department of Defense is interested in the technology as something that can be used where troops are deployed all over the world, he said, and it can be widely applicable. "I don't see us ever running out of waste," he said.

Digesting Food-Processing Residues

It takes a team of companies with a variety of expertise to implement an AD project at a food processing facility, according to Dave Konwinski, founder and CEO of Onsite Power Systems Inc.

Feedstock management, along with monitoring and operating, might be the most crucial elements of project development, he said. "We really have to look at where the customer sits-what kinds of incentives there are," he said. The company's pathway to commercialization of its AD system started with extensive testing that included system analysis, design and feedstock.

AD offers economic opportunities in waste recovery as well as renewable fuels production. "It offers the customer a way to deal with the waste stream and turn it into a revenue stream," Konwinski said.

Scott Christian, process engineer with ADI Systems, discussed ADI's Anaerobic Membrane Bioreactor (AnMBR) for high suspended solid waste. The system uses a physical membrane barrier to separate solids, liquids and gases, distinguishing it from conventional AD systems. AnMBR fits in a compact space, achieves complete retention of biomass and consistently produces a superior-quality effluent, he said. The company has 15 full-scale systems operating in Japan and recently established its first U.S. system at Ken's Foods near Boston, Mass. It can be set up for distilleries, MSW or food processing facilities.

The main benefits of organics recycling for food processors are cost savings and an improved environmental profile, which can drive sales, according to Paul Sellew, co-founder and CEO of Harvest Power Inc., which specializes in AD technologies and advanced composting and distributed biomass gasification. Local development is essential for successful projects, Sellew said, along with product marketing.

The Sacramento, Calif., Municipal Utility District will generate 61 percent of its renewable energy portfolio this year from biomass systems that include digesting dairy wastes, MSW and agricultural wastes, among others, according to senior project manager Valentino Tiangco. Dairy farms are ideal places for AD systems-the 151 of them operating in the U.S. produce 374,000 megawatt hours of energy, he said.

SMUD is working to develop gas and nitrogen oxide cleanup systems, along with a biogas-fueled low-emission engine generator demonstration, both on dairy farms. The utility recently received $5 million from the U.S. DOE for five projects, four of which are biomass based.

Using Waste Streams

The two challenges to effective and widespread use of waste streams from the livestock and biofuels industries are controlling air-deposited nutrients and greenhouse gas emissions, according to David Bracht, an attorney with Husch Blackwell Sanders LLP.

Livestock operations are growing in size and that means growing waste streams, while biofuels operations are facing increased regulations and an emphasis on carbon footprint reduction, he said. Both problems can be addressed by biomass energy technologies. "Use nature as a solution," Bracht said.

Most existing animal waste stream systems use AD because it's easy, he said, but there's room for improvement. "The next generation of these systems will go beyond just methane," he said, adding that advanced systems can increase energy capture up to three times the Btu value. "You really have to have an end-user in mind," he cautioned prospective developers, emphasizing that the user needs to be close to the operation.

AD systems can process many different kinds of waste streams. "Anything that biodegrades is a candidate for anaerobic digestion," said Norma McDonald, North America sales manager for Organic Waste Systems Inc. She discussed components of different types of manure compatible with the company's systems, drawing on her family's farming experience. Crop residuals can also be easily digested, but wood cannot. "I want to clear one thing up right now," she said. "Anaerobic digestion does not compete with other uses of woody biomass."

Off-farm residuals such as syrup stillage, glycerin and yard waste are digestible, as well, said McDonald, who talked about both dry and wet AD. The resulting biogas is more eco-friendly than landfill gas, she said, and allows self-sufficiency for livestock and poultry farmers, who made up about one-third of her audience.

Besides AD, gasification is also a solution for waste stream management, as discussed by panelist Goutam Shahani, vice president of sales and marketing for Heat Transfer International. Biomass use will grow in the next 10 years, he said, and the company is prepared to advance with that growth. "We at HTI are very excited about this opportunity and we definitely want to be a part of this future," he said.

HTI has developed a starved-air low-temperature (SALT) gasification system that uses partial oxidation and is clean and controlled, he said, emphasizing the difference between gasification and combustion. The company has one current project using SALT that processes 67 tons of turkey litter per day and can provide 500 kilowatts of electricity to the grid, he said. The company focuses primarily on cost reduction. "I think that's No. 1," he said. "In today's economic environment, a project has to be economic or people will not invest in it." The gasification system does not need water, another significant benefit, and is flexible in feedstock compatibility as well as energy production, as it can generate heat, steam and electricity, Shahani said.

Minnesota DNR Talks Biomass Availability

Minnesota's woodlands are often referred to as a vast forest resource, but the state Department of Natural Resources affirms that much of the woody biomass available in the state is already in use, and that additional projects will be carefully and responsibly selected.

DNR Biomass Coordinator Anna Dirkswager and Biofuels Manager Mark Lindquist provided some clarity surrounding Minnesota's resources, and why it matters how the wood is utilized. "The DNR, regardless of what renewable energy industry we're dealing with or where we're purposing to go, has a central mission to work with our citizens to conserve and manage our natural resources for all interests and uses," Dirkswager said.

Every few years, the DNR division of forestry surveys all the wood energy facilities within the state to evaluate how much wood is being used and for what purposes, according to Dirkswager. The most recent survey completed this past winter found that there is about 960,000 green tons of forest-based biomass being used for green energy, and as far as what's available goes, Dirkswager said there is about 3 million tons of green woody biomass, including all categories but mill residue.
Dirkswager said currently there are about 52 wood energy facilities in the state, six of which use more than 200,000 green tons per year.

Dealing regularly with individuals and companies who are interested in locating wood energy facilities in Minnesota, Dirkswager says most of the time notions of what is available are inaccurate. "Most are surprised to find that we have so many facilities already using this resource," she said. "Currently we have about 25 proposals on board for wood for energy facilities, and this number changes frequently."

Dirkswager admitted that it can be difficult to filter out realistic proposals from nonrealistic proposals. "We use a set of criteria, and the more they have met-such as making a public announcement and/or beginning the environmental permitting process-the more likely they are to be put into a separate category, one in which we currently have about five. If you add those up, they are proposing to use about 1.2 million green tons."

"The big picture message here is that we believe we have about 3 million green tons [plus or minus 50 percent] to work with for different industry opportunities, and it matters how we use it," Dirkswager said.

Anna Austin and Lisa Gibson are Biomass Magazine associate editors. Reach them at or (701) 738-4968 and or (701) 738-4952.