Biomass A Mile High

The 2012 International Biomass Conference & Expo in the Mile High City drew attendees from around the world, eager to learn and meet others who share their passion
By Lisa Gibson, Anna Simet and Luke Geiver | May 23, 2012

The U.S. Department of Defense has many needs, but electricity tops them all, according to Dan Nolan, a 26-year U.S. Army veteran and current CEO of energy and military consulting firm Sabot 6. He authors the DoD energy blog and captivated his audience as the keynote speaker of the International Biomass Conference & Expo, held April 16-19 in Denver, Colo.

The annual event featured a number of new additions this year, including the co-located Rocky Mountain Forest Restoration & Bioenergy Summit, which focused on the unique opportunity for the biomass industry to advance forest management in disease-ridden and wildfire-prone forests. The conference also included two full days of tours instead of the traditional one. But one aspect that remains the same each year is the pertinent and newsworthy panel topics. Many of the 1,300 in attendance were impressed with the speakers, presentations and fresh content.

Nolan was no exception. In perhaps the most gripping aspect of his presentation, Nolan ended his speech with a night-view photo of the world. He highlighted the major conflict areas, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and others. The safer regions of the world were brightly lit, but all the regions in turmoil were dark in comparison. Nolan offered advice to those who wonder where conflict will arise without energy security in the U.S. “Look at the world at night.”

He also explained the link between the U.S. Department of Defense and renewable energy, specifically biomass. “DoD is a market driver,” he said. “It is the gorilla in the room.” The DoD is an unrivaled entity in terms of its reach into the energy sector. It’s also the nation’s largest employer, and if all its acres were linked together, it would be the size of Pennsylvania. Nolan said the potential for biomass use within the agency is barely tapped.

He then highlighted several military initiatives biomass producers can take advantage of, including $7.1 billion put forth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That initiative will help develop an infrastructure market and energy generation facilities at military installations across the U.S., inside the gates of the military communities. Applications to the program can be submitted for another six to eight months, and projects will begin in about a year.

A History of Biomass

During the general session discussion “Director’s Roundtable: Priorities for Industry Growth in an Election Year,” Gary Melow, Biomass Power Association state projects coordinator, gave an overview of the biomass power industry’s history, pointing out that things have changed dramatically for producers over the years. He also explained how the industry got where it is today.

“Our industry was born back in the 1980s as a result of federal PURPA (Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act) legislation, which required utilities to purchase power from independent power producers,” Melow said.

But coal reserves found in the Western U.S. in the 1990s drove down the price of coal, and subsequently, the price of energy. “As a result, states were deregulating their electricity markets,” Melow said. “So you had this perfect storm of utilities selling contracts and biomass power facilities upside down on their fuel contracts, and without subsidies or incentives or other economic financial instruments, so we started to see plants close.”

Things changed again in the 2000s, when the country began to see states adopt renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and plants started to come back online, according to Melow. “We started seeing some small coal plants convert to biomass, and in the last few years, we’ve seen some green developments.” Unfortunately, little or no growth has occurred in states without RPSs, he said.

The BPA’s main initiative is emphasizing to lawmakers the benefits of biomass power, according to Melow. “We’re sort of going back to the future, promoting and marketing the intrinsic values that have been the core of our industry since the beginning.” Those values include local resource utilization, support of jobs and local communities, production of a high-value product delivered to the marketplace using existing infrastructure, environmental benefits, and more.

Following Melow, Joseph Seymour, executive director of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, and Jennifer Hedrick, executive director of the Pellet Fuels Institute, touched on issues affecting the biomass pellet and densified fuel industry.

Like BPA, BTEC and PFI are watching pending federal regulations such as the Maximum Achievable Control Technology rules, and they have been promoting the inclusion of biomass thermal in any national renewable energy legislation. Seymour pointed out that it’s important for the industry to have trade organizations to unify the biomass thermal sector, and to properly convey messages to policymakers. “When we walk into a congressperson’s office, they usually don’t understand biomass thermal, let alone biomass,” he said. “So what we try and do is avoid too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Seymour admitted one particular hurdle is competing with natural gas. “I won’t deny that natural gas is changing the economics of some thermal projects,” he said.

During her speech, Hedrick shined some optimism on the growing pellet stove market, telling the crowd that 1.5 million U.S. homes are currently heating with pellet stoves, and a small but growing number are utilizing pellet boilers and furnaces. “The residential market has been a steady market over the last several years,” she said. One of PFI’s major initiatives for this year is rolling out its new third-party certification standards program, with the help of the U.S. EPA.

Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, discussed progress that his members are making on their first commercial-scale advanced biofuel plants, emphasizing that the advanced biofuel industry is now a reality. “It was just a year and a half or two years ago that people were saying that it didn’t exist; that it was pixie dust and unicorns,” he said, adding that he recently witnessed renewable diesel and jet fuel production at Dynamic Fuels’ plant in New Orleans.

Joe Jobe, president of the National Biodiesel Board, highlighted in his presentation a milestone the biodiesel industry hit in 2011—reaching more than 1 billion gallons of production—and described the hurdles the industry encountered while trying to get there. “I’ve read about the biodiesel industry being an overnight success story, and that makes me chuckle because it was more of a 20-year overnight success story,” he said.

The following day’s general session, “Groundbreakers Roundtable: Examining Projects that Survived the Development Gauntlet and Broke Ground in 2011,” featured Joshua Levine, vice president of project development for American Renewables, Pete Nájera, vice president of operations for Enviva, Mike Scott, president and CEO of Nexterra Inc., and Mike Levin, vice president of government affairs for FlexEnergy Inc. Each speaker brought a positive and inspiring story about his project’s success.
Nájera told the crowd that one company’s win in the biomass arena is a win for the entire industry, a success for all of us.

Complex Cash

Charles Grecco, executive vice president of Cate Street Capital Inc., knows about the hurdles that can hinder a biomass power project, and he explained at the event how to overcome them. In developing Cate Street’s Burgess BioPower in Berlin, N.H., Grecco has battled public opposition and complicated debt financing options. “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up,” Grecco said, quoting Thomas Edison.

One of the main reasons for the 75 MW project’s success, Grecco pointed out, was the negotiation process with the region’s utility providers early in its conception. “We started talking with the utilities long before we spent any money in other places,” he said. The Berlin facility also benefited from the team’s ability to take advantage of an active renewable energy credit market. For the power purchase agreement, the team had to get creative.

The 20-year PPA is structured to allow the utility provider the option to purchase the biomass facility if it has been paying more than the agreed-upon rate for the biomass electricity.
But the project would not have been possible without the complex debt structure Cate Street Capital was able to put together. The company used four main funding sources: 55 percent senior secured notes totaling $150 million; 18 percent senior floating rate notes totaling $50 million; the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s 1603 grant funding and a New Market Tax Credit (NMTC) bridge loan, combined for 20 percent or $55 million; and 7 percent NMTC equity totaling $17.5 million. “We structured every project from a debt perspective,” Grecco said. “So all of our contracts are long term, even our waste and sewer contracts.”

Touring Twice

The district heating plant in Boulder County, Colo., is another great success story for the industry, supplying five buildings and a total of 95,000 square feet. The plant was a trailblazer in Colorado’s forest-residue-to-bioenergy industry and is a perfect example of integrating forest management with biomass applications.

It was a stop on the second set of tours corresponding with the International Biomass Conference & Expo, which also offered attendees a dazzling view of the forests of Boulder County’s foothills and mountains, forest thinning and treatment operations, and a stop at New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colo.

Boulder County Parks and Open Space manages more than 30,000 acres of forest, thinning 100 to 200 acres per year. Before the biomass plant was operating, that forest management resulted in the burning of about 1,600 slash piles annually, according to Terese Glowacki, natural resources manager.
While different forest regions are treated in different ways at different times, much of it involves thinning. Years ago, Boulder County Parks and Open Space chipped the thinnings and left them on the forest floor in a three-inch thick layer to analyze the effect on forest health, but results were not favorable. “We had a scientist study what the effects were, and it turned out that it actually increased the growth of noxious weeds,” Glowacki said.

The county’s biomass boiler was installed following a very positive feasibility study, and began operating in 2005. “It has been so successful that in 2011, we installed a second biomass system,” Glowacki said, adding that the second system heats a jail.

Wood at the treatment sites is chipped directly into a chipper truck—which Boulder County parks and Open Space rents about a dozen times a year—and is hauled to the county’s fully-automated district heating plant or a storage area about two miles away.

The final tour stop was the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., where attendees learned about the history of the brewery, its culture and sustainability program, and sampled some of its most popular and seasonal beers.

Katie Wallace, New Belgium Brewery sustainability director, said the brewery hosts an on-site process water treatment plant (PWTP). Water that was used in the beer-making process is sent through a series of aerobic and anaerobic basins, and the resulting methane is piped back to the brewery where it powers a 292 kilowatt (kW) combined-heat-and-power engine.

That system was installed about seven years ago, and a second biogas generator was recently commissioned. One generates power for the PWTP, and the other is utilized to supplement brewery electricity, up to 15 percent. The brewery also participates in the Smart Grid program, Wallace said, and has a solar photovoltaic panel array on top of its packaging hall.

The two days of tours straddled the event, offering a hands-on opening and closing to the conference. The first day included stops at the U.S. DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., Community Power Corp.’s modular biomass system in Littleton, Colo., and emissions monitoring systems developer Cisco in Englewood, Colo.

All in all, the International Biomass Conference & Expo offered not only learning opportunities, but exceptional networking venues. The evening trade show receptions were well-attended and the Coors Field baseball event sparked industry discussion while the Colorado Rockies beat the San Diego Padres.

Against a backdrop of the breathtaking snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the event was destined for success.

Authors: Lisa Gibson
Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 738-4952
Anna Simet
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 751-2756
Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 738-4944