EERC biomass workshop addresses project challenges

By Lisa Gibson | May 31, 2010
Posted July 20, 2010, at 3:20 p.m. CST

Challenges to commercializing large-scale renewable energy are many, but most revolve around costs and funding, as discussed by Mark Warner, vice president of process industries for Seattle-based Harris Group Inc., during Biomass '10: Renewable Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop in Grand Forks, N.D. The annual event is held by the University of North Dakota's Energy & Environmental Research Center and attracts attendees from around the world.

A biomass power plant has a better chance of being financed than other technologies, Warner said, because the process has already been established. The capital cost to develop a project using emerging technologies is significantly higher than that of existing technologies. "Funding favors known technologies such as biomass power," Warner emphasized.

Capital cost has halted plenty of technologies, he said, but feedstock supply and off take is the second most-limiting factor. "Feedstock is very important," Warner said. "People believe their technologies are open to a much broader range of feedstocks than they actually are." Claiming a process is "feedstock agnostic" is somewhat nave and overemphasized, he added. The process can be capable of taking a variety of feedstocks, but prepping it to accept them efficiently is completely different.

Getting that biomass to the facility is also an important consideration when planning a project. "It really comes down to transportation," Warner said. "You need to be able to feed your facility within 50 miles." A multitude of agricultural residue exists in the Midwest for biomass feedstock, but hurdles loom. Besides the obvious lack of collecting, processing and transportation infrastructure, the feedstock has high ash content and extractives, he said, adding that he believes there is going to be a niche for agricultural residues, but it will be in very different geographical areas than woody biomass.

"We don't have refineries located every 50 miles in this country," said presenter Christopher Marshall, director of the Argonne National Laboratory's Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations. Marshall discussed the catalyst research being done at the IACT and listed location related to feedstocks as a challenge to blending biomass with gasoline and diesel. Other challenges include oxygen content, volatility, solubility and a low hydrogen-to-carbon ratio.

When those obstacles are overcome, using catalysts for biofuels can increase the yields, reduce the environmental impact and meet performance demands, Marshall said. Today's biofuels are corn ethanol and biodiesel, he cited. "Tomorrow's biofuel industry will look quite a bit different from harvesting corn and making fuel out of that," he said, citing biocrude from energy crops such as switchgrass and hybrid poplars.

Speaker Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, had a chance to stick up for corn ethanol and emphasized the relationship between it and biomass-based fuels. "If you want to advance drop-in fuels and second-generation fuels, the way not to do that is trash corn ethanol," he said. "Corn ethanol is going to pave the way for you to succeed. It's going to prime the pump."

Every form of energy has a tradeoff, Jennings said, and the future of biomass and corn-based ethanol are undeniably related. "If there's no market for next-generation biofuel, it will go nowhere," he said.

That market can be established and the biggest business drivers for biomass energy are carbon cap and trade or tax legislation that looms over U.S. industries; renewable portfolio standards; and the quest for lowest-cost, nearest-term carbon reduction technology, according to Chris Zygarlicke, deputy associate director for research at the EERC. He emphasized distributed biomass gasification, saying it's a growing trend and it will continue to grow.

The U.S. federal government estimates that 35 percent of the nation's energy consumption could be renewable by 2035. Of that, 5 to 10 percent could be biomass, Zygarlicke said. "We are probably looking at greater than 5 percent biomass energy," he said.

As always, challenges arise and widespread biomass gasification has its burdens including elusive feedstocks, the high cost of raw biomass, and inconsistent incentives and regulations, he cited. But the biomass industry as a whole has plenty of room to grow and will make the best of it. "We're in a great place right now in this time in history," Zygarlicke said.