Conference track evaluates biomass supply chains, power conversions

By Anna Austin
Posted August 5, 2010, at 9:17 p.m. CST

Biomass Magazine's Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo in Boston kicked off breakout sessions Thursday afternoon, offering nearly 300 attendees the opportunity to observe their choice of panels in four Northeast U.S.-specific tracks including electricity generation, industrial heat and power, biorefining and biomass power project development and finance.

Hosting eight industry professionals, the electricity generation track touched on issues involving the development of economic biomass supply chains to meet industrial-scale demands, as well as logistical and technical issues associated with biomass cofiring, retrofitting and repowering.

Idaho National Laboratory's Christopher Wright discussed challenges related to interface boundaries between feedstock logistics on the production side and the conversion side of biomass power. "Thinking about solid feedstocks, the main objective is to turn them into something that is at commodity scale, and is infrastructure compatible," he said. "Something we grappled with early on was whether the industry will require new, fully innovative infrastructure to handle materials."

There are many problems associated with that, Wright said, especially cost constraints. "Building an entirely new system to move and handle biomass would be much too capital intensive and constrained," he said. "Can we engineer biomass so that it looks or handles much like it was processed using infrastructure that we already use today, such as that for grain for instance? A prime example is what the pellet industry is building on today; if we can get the material into a dense form that is moveable and can be stored indefinitely, then we have a system that matches our ideal."

Wright said Idaho National Laboratory is currently working on a mobile pilot-scale preprocessing unit for research and demonstration purposes. "It makes more sense to bring the unit to the biomass than the biomass to the unit," he said. "If you can handle and create a bulk material, you will save costs throughout your supply system very rapidly-you want to get that gain as early as possible."

Dan Conable, research partner for Cato Analytics LLC emphasized the need to recognize that farmers aren't the only landowners when looking for land to grow biomass crops on. "You need to find out who owns the land you're interested in and what they want to do with it," he said. "What reason do they own it for? Did they inherit it? Do they just live there? Take their interests into consideration." Conable said there is usually little pressure on the owner to grow something if they aren't already, and farmers will usually rent out their land if they will make just slightly more than what they are currently making off it themselves.

Once the land is rented or purchased, securing long-term feedstock supply agreements is key to a successful biomass crop operation, though it is usually challenging, according to Conable.

Changing the focus to the mechanics and logistics of biomass power operations, Riley Power Inc.'s Curtis Schaaf discussed biomass conversion strategies for existing power plants and evaluation criteria. Schaaf said that Riley Power approaches biomass conversions in four steps that include evaluation of fuel sources, boiler types, emissions and plant arrangements. "One thing we really push for is fuel flexibility," he said. "It's a big part of these conversions or new biomass units-being able to burn multiple fuels gives you some economic flexibility."

Idaho Energy Product's Patrick Travis echoed Schaaf's sentiments. "Selection and identification of a biomass source is as critical as finding and selecting a boiler, and these are two tasks that should occur simultaneously," he said. "I call it a second first. When considering the fuel you are going to use, think outside the box and don't look for one specific source. Look for two, three, four or more. Our experience with projects doing biomass since the early 1970s is that the fuel you are using today may or probably won't be the same fuel you'll have available to you in five or 10 years. You have to have a boiler technology capable of switching to different fuels."

Schaaf said the way Riley Power approaches boiler conversions, typically from coal to biomass, uses six phases so that fatal flaws can be discovered during an initial phase before too much time, effort and/or money is put into a problematic conversion.

According to panelist Kyle Michael of Bluewater Enegy Solutions, if a facility is being purchased for a possible conversion, it is imperative to have a thorough condition assessment before the sale. "It would surprise you how many power plants are bought with minimal assessments," he said. "If you're buying a used car, you bring it in first to get looked at and make sure you don't need a new transmission, so it's critical to have this assessment. You're going to be spending money on the front end before you buy the plant, which is a hard pill to swallow, but it will very likely save you money in the end or prevent a poor decision to purchase a plant."

Michael said in one case, where a thorough assessment had not been done, a power plant's smokestack fell over not long after start-up. "The stack had corroded and nobody had looked at the smokestack and it just fell over, and it shut them down for awhile," he said.

During such an assessment, a team goes through the plant and performs a complete system-by-system condition check on everything necessary including pumps, motors, valves and more. "If a plant has been shut down for years there's a good chance none of the rotating equipment has been maintained so you will have bearing problems," Michael said. "We'll look at all the transmitters-if you don't know you have to upgrade 50 $2,500 transmitters going into the project, you're going to have a big bill in your hand that you may not be expecting."