Biomass’ Own Silver Buckshot

By Tim Portz | August 22, 2012

At the U.S. Department of Energy’s annual biomass conference earlier this summer in Washington, D.C., agency personnel opined about the various obstacles facing the biomass industry and limiting or slowing its growth trajectory. Acting Biomass Program Director Valerie Reed suggested that the cost of conversion technologies was the largest obstacle while Secretary of Energy Steven Chu suggested that ultimately a lack of market stability was the industry’s most significant bottleneck. While a cynic might draw attention to this divergence in thought from within the same department, I think it is more likely due to the wide interpretation of what biomass-derived energy actually is.

Clearly, Reed held emerging advanced biofuels technologies in her mind when she made that remark. Anaerobic digesters, landfill gas capture and combustion operations, pellet stoves, district energy systems and biomass boilers for electric power production are all relatively mature and proven technologies that have been and are currently being deployed and operated worldwide.
At the same event, retired Vice Adm. of the Navy Dennis V. McGinn noted that the means to this country’s clean, secure and domestic energy goals lie not in one elusive silver bullet, but instead in a collection of solutions he referred to as “silver buckshot”.

While I have heard the buckshot metaphor before, it had never resonated to the degree that it did after I read this month’s issue of Biomass Magazine. Within just 10 pages, our coverage examines biomass utilization in one of the world’s most densely populated cities (Erin Voegele’s piece on a landfill gas project outside of Rio de Janeiro) and the potential for biomass-derived heat in some of the most remote reaches of the United States (Anna Simet’s exploration of the challenge to provide thermal energy in rural Alaska).  These projects are being explored and commissioned not in spite of conversion technologies that bear price tags that hamstring their development, but because of technologies that offer cost-effective energy capture and production solutions.

Of course Reed and Chu were both right with their assertion that our industry can and will benefit from lower-cost conversion technologies and greater market stability. However, I identify most readily with Vice Adm. McGinn’s comments and know he would see the projects outlined in this issue of Biomass Magazine as testimony that some of the pellets in our industry’s own brand of “silver buckshot” are finding their mark.