Gateway to Biomass

From well-rounded industry tours to a jam-packed expo hall and intriguing panel discussions, the 2011 International Biomass Conference & Expo in St. Louis lived up to its reputation as the largest and most comprehensive biomass event in the world.
By Lisa Gibson and Erin Voegele | May 23, 2011

Biomass enthusiasts packed the trade show hall at the fourth annual International Biomass Conference & Expo in St. Louis, establishing new business connections, learning about products and services, and discussing the informative presentations they took in during panel sessions. 

The event, located at the America’s Center just blocks from the Gateway City’s trademark arch, attracted nearly 1,400 attendees from 22 countries, 46 states and eight Canadian provinces. Breakout panels divided into six feedstock-based tracks and further into four focus areas—thermal, power, biorefining and project development—consistently drew in the majority of attendees with their intriguing content and reputable speakers. 

Richard Newell, administrator for the U.S. DOE’s Energy Information Administration, delivered the keynote address, detailing the biomass portions of the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2011 report, and emphasizing the interconnectedness of biomass and biofuels within the energy sector.

“We need to pay increased attention to biomass in the interconnectedness of energy,” Newell told the crowd. Two important points he emphasized are that biofuels feedstocks can also be used to generate electricity, and that biofuel production itself can foster a biopower coproduct.

The EIA predicts consumption of biomass for liquid fuels and power will increase significantly through 2035, driven primarily by cellulosic biofuels and electricity. Even with projections of meaningful increases, fossil fuels will still provide 78 percent of U.S. energy in 2035. Renewable energy consumption is expected to increase to 14 percent in 2035, up from 8 percent in 2009.

The increased use of cellulosic biomass for liquid fuels and power will come primarily in the areas of energy crops and crop residues, urban wood waste and forest biomass, Newell said. The EIA predicts, however, that both liquid biofuels and biomass power will compete for the same biomass supply.

Newell also said natural gas, wind and other renewables will account for the vast majority of capacity additions through 2035. In the near term, a substantial amount will come from wind, but that tax credit is set to expire, shifting new capacity to other sources. By the same projections, biomass electricity production increases fourfold by 2035 in the areas of combined-heat-and-power (CHP) and cofiring with coal. The largest opportunity, though, he reiterated, is the cogeneration of biomass electricity with the production of advanced biofuels.

In closing, Newell told his audience that policy changes and higher oil prices are moving the U.S. toward increased use of biofuels. He cautioned, though, that uncertainties, such as those in policy and market, land use, infrastructure changes and technology development, still lie ahead.  

Policy Powwow
Following Newell’s morning address was an association executive roundtable discussion of overarching policy goals for multiple aspects of the biomass industry. Featured speakers were Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algal Biomass Organization; Charlie Niebling, chairman of the board of directors for the Biomass Thermal Energy Council; Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association; Norma McDonald, vice chair of external affairs and co-chair of legislative and regulatory affairs for the American Biogas Council; Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association; Joe Jobe, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board; and Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association. Moderating the all-star panel was Tom Bryan, vice president of BBI International.

Niebling and  McDonald both identified parity as a key goal of their organizations. Biomass thermal energy has been entirely overlooked by federal policy, Niebling said, and BTEC strives to ensure it is incorporated into whatever kind of clean energy or renewable energy policy platform Congress pursues. “We also obviously have a challenge in educating a new crop of (Congressional) members and their staffs,” he said. “We still face real challenges in making sure people understand the [role thermal energy] plays in the pressing energy challenges in our country.”

McDonald also noted that her organization is working to discontinue policies that encourage organic waste to be disposed of in landfills rather than to be used to create renewable energy. “At the federal level we are focused on incentives that will ensure that the organic fraction of municipal solid waste, for instance, receives equal treatment in terms of the definitions of biomass,” she said. On the state level, the ABC also intends to work with the generators of organic waste to divert that material from being landfilled.

Panelists addressed the need for a federal clean energy standard and Cleaves emphasized that saving the USDA’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program is a crucial near-term goal.

But all the speakers agreed that prodding Congress to take action on their important issues is going to be difficult because of the focus on debt reduction, as well as the upcoming 2012 election cycle. “This is a really depressing fact, but really we have between now and the summer,” Cleaves said. “Then, nothing is going to happen until the 2012 election.”

Something Old, Something New
In addition to traditional plenary and breakout panel discussions, this year’s conference featured a few important changes including the addition of a keynote speaker to kick off day two. Hannalene Beillard, senior business development officer for the Export-Import Bank of the United States, delivered an extremely relevant keynote address on funding biomass export endeavors, including details on what her organization can offer entrepreneurs.

It was appropriately followed by a plenary session comprised of company executives well-versed in global project development. Simon Parker, CEO of DP Cleantech Co. Ltd., walked the audience through the development of biopower markets in China, where DP Cleantech excels in its development. “DP Cleantech rode on the back of a tiger,” he said.

Then, after panelist Christian Morgen, vice president of marketing for Inbicon, discussed the company’s cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant in Denmark, Brad Saville, vice president of research and development for Mascoma Canada Inc., discussed the company’s endeavors with its flagship biomass preparation technology, as well as its pretreatment and cellulosic ethanol plant development. The company has worldwide experience with multiple feedstocks, including in Italy, Spain, China, France, and the U.S. and Canada.

Last, Seth Ginther, executive director of the newly-formed U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, highlighted export opportunities spurred by Europe’s wood pellet demand.  “Folks, this is a huge opportunity to create jobs; to put people back to work,” he said. Each new exporting pellet plant could employ about 60 people in the facilities themselves and more in the forests. “It’s a great economic driver,” he said. “There’s lots of demand coming down the pike and estimates say this will grow.”

The event ended with a social networking panel, another new addition to the agenda. The Business n’ Breakfast Series, Social Media and PR Strategies to Grow Your Business and Win Over Industry Skeptics, drew a crowd of about 50 listeners and even ran long with a steady flow of audience questions and input. It featured John Nelson, BBI International's senior marketing manager, as well as moderator Matthew Spoor, BBI’s vice president of sales and marketing. The two were joined in the discussion by Greg Veerman, principal/executive creative director of Astronaut Studio, and Scott Miller, founder and president of The Miller DeWulf Corp. and avid blogger and tweeter.

With the successful conclusion of the 2011 event, BBI International has high hopes for the 2012 International Biomass Conference & Expo, which will be held April 16-19 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.

Author: Lisa Gibson
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 738-4952
Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
(701) 540-6986


Biomass tour covers AD, gasification and landfill gas conversion

Weaving through the six enormous anaerobic digester tanks at Anheuser-Busch’s complex in St. Louis, Ed Randazzo proudly pointed out the lack of foul smells. Randazzo is an operator at the Anheuser-Busch Bio-Energy Recovery System (BERS), just down the street from the company’s brewery and bottle factory, and the first of three tour locations held in conjunction with BBI International’s International Biomass Conference & Expo.

About 50 people took part in the industry tour and got a well-rounded look at three different biomass technologies: anaerobic digestion, gasification and landfill gas conversion.

The Anheuser-Busch digester consumes effluent from the beer-making process, among other wastes, Randazzo explained to an attentive subgroup of tour attendees. Participants got to view the biomass used in the anaerobic digesters through a microscope, almost making it possible to catch a glimpse of the tiny microbes that live on the granular biomass and carry out the process. The system takes in about 3 million gallons of wastewater per day and reduces the facilities’ organic waste by about 80 percent while producing about 900,000 square feet of biogas daily, used to generate process heat for the company’s plant. Material screened out of the wastewater is sold to a family horseradish farm in southern Illinois.

 The next stop was the IESI MO Champ Landfill, where constant truck traffic made it necessary for tour guests to view the landfill through the bus windows. A landfill gas recovery operation at the site provides renewable electricity for two asphalt plants, a commercial greenhouse, a concrete facility and a local high school. Plans for expansion of the landfill gas utilization system are slated for operation in August 2012 and will be carried out by electric company Ameren Missouri. The expansion will increase electricity production to about 15 megawatts (MW) and to about 60 MW in 2025.

The site also serves as a limestone quarry, and one of its two landfills sits at the bottom of a 250-foot deep mining trench. The bus crossed a one-way bridge before driving partway into the enormous hole for tour attendees to view a landfill only partially full. A large portion of the black ground liner remained exposed with massive trucks pushing around the garbage piles. 

Upon leaving the site, the tour bus was required to take the same precautions as all other exiting traffic to minimize the amount of sediments and mud removed from the location. It entails driving through a strong sprinkler-type mechanism that essentially creates a white wall of recycled water.

Last, the group stopped at Innovative Energy Inc. to see the company’s 2 MW gasifier model in the St. Louis suburb of Fenton. The system can gasify any carbon-based fuel, including wood, municipal solid waste, ag residue, energy crops, plastics, tires, shingles and paper. During the tour, though, the company was experimenting with some switchgrass pellets. CEO Glenn Foy explained that many biomass projects fall through because of feedstock issues. “We thought fuel flexibility was critical,” he said.

The gasifier itself is quite small, at about four feet in diameter and 15 feet tall. A yellow rope separated the tour guests from the gasifier’s proprietary processes, but several company employees spoke to the crowd about the system using diagrams and flow charts to illustrate its functions. Because it is a distributed energy system it doesn’t require transmission lines like wind, coal and hydropower to get the power from where it’s produced to where it will be used, they said.

Driving back to the city, tour guests discussed the compelling aspects of all the tour sites and wondered about the proprietary elements of Innovative Energy’s system and what might set it apart from other gasifiers.

—Lisa Gibson


Farming and Biomass

The farming community is an integral part of the biorefining and biomass heat and power industries. Its contribution to the growth of the industry can—at times—be overshadowed by the massive amount of attention paid to research, development and scale-up activities. Attendees at the 2011 International Biomass Conference & Expo in St. Louis had the opportunity to learn more about the farming community’s perspective of the biomass industry during a panel titled Enlisting Farmers in the Profitable Production of Biomass Supply Chains.

Daniel Simon, a partner in Ballard Spahr LLP’s Energy and Project Finance Group, opened the panel with a historical overview of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. Although the program initially faced a variety of implementation issues, the USDA is forging ahead.

During his presentation, Simon noted that USDA originally planned to accept project area proposals for BCAP on a rolling basis, but in a surprise move announced a May 27 application deadline for the program earlier this spring. Although the move came as a bit of a shock to those following the program, he noted that it is understandable under the circumstances. “I think USDA wants to get the money out the door as quickly as possible,” Simon added. The optimistic schedule established by the USDA called for the state level Farm Service Agency to review the applications by June 10, with federal reviews following two weeks later.

The biggest question with the program right now is whether Congress will continue to fund the program in fiscal year 2012 and beyond, Simon said. The USDA seems to strongly support this program, he noted, but said it has had “a very tortured history.” For this reason the USDA seems motivated to roll out the program correctly and make sure the assigned funding goes to support the best possible projects.

Don McCabe, vice president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, also participated in the panel and shared valuable insight from the perspective of the farming community.  McCabe noted there seems to be a lot of potential in the biomass power sector, but potential doesn’t necessarily equate to reality. “Talk to me in three years; talk to me in 10 years and I’ll tell you if it’s a reality or not,” he said. “There is no silver bullets here folks, but I’m very optimistic there is a whole lot of silver buckshot.”

McCabe offered a simple explanation of what famers need in order to become involved in biomass production—fair compensation. “Don’t come insult me by offering me $35 a ton for corn stalks,” he said. “I’ve got earthworms that are hungry. They are going to eat it before you are.” He elaborated by noting that famers already supply our society with food, clothing, hunting opportunities, jobs, and several other important products and services. “So, now you want me to supply electrons?” he said. “I’ll do it, but show me the money, because something has to give … $7 corn is here to stay and so are soybeans.” In addition, McCabe spoke about the farming community’s needs regarding long-term contracts for biomass crops, simple logistics plans and strong federal policies.

Risk was a primary topic of Timothy Baye’s presentation. Baye is a professor of business and a bioenergy specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. The biomass value proposition is “all about risk,” he said. “It’s all about dealing with risk involved from the ground to the conversion—and getting paid for that risk. When you first think about biomass supply you are thinking about optimizing the value extraction. It’s a good place to start. Think about all the variables. The pulp and paper industry has a long history of dealing with a lot of bulky products, logistics [and] pricing.” There are also comparisons that can be made with the grain, oil, gas and coal industries.

Aaron Schuchart, a managing partner with Biomass Integrators LLC, closed out the session with a discussion of how biomass composition, genetics, agronomic practices, soil composition and harvest dates all contribute to the impact biomass fuels have on boiler operations and emissions.

“Ideally as an industry, we would have a database to actually quantify all of these independent variables and their effect on fuel composition, but unfortunately we do not have that,” he said. “So, what we recommend for any project that is going to employ a dedicated energy crop, we suggest a one-year pilot program—at a minimum—as part of your feasibility prior to actually scaling to [the commercial level].”

Schuchart also spoke about federal policy needs. While there has been a lot of talk about BCAP, he noted that there are several other actions the federal government could take to support the biomass industry, including the development of crop insurance for dedicated energy crops and the inclusion of grasses grown under conservation programs. “I think those two things would be really helpful,” he said.

—Erin Voegele