Biomass is Base Load

By Tim Portz | May 06, 2014

It is virtually impossible for me to walk by a large circulation, consumer magazine with an energy related cover story without buying it. Most recently I picked up and purchased the April 2014 issue of WIRED magazine. Its medium gray cover featured a single fist sized piece of coal sitting next to the headline “Coal: It’s Dangerous, It’s Dirty, and It’s the Future of Clean Energy”. The article, authored by Charles C. Mann is nearly 6000 words long, supported by handsome and compelling infographics and is as unsettling a story as I’ve read about energy and climate change in recent memory.

Shortly after reading the story on a flight, I lost the magazine. This turned out to be a fortuitous occurrence as had I not misplaced the hard copy I would not have pulled up the online version of the story and discovered the robust debate and discussion appended to the article in the comment section, nor the thoughtful back and forth between Mann and the Sierra Club’s Paul Rauber, senior editor of that organization’s Sierra publication at Rauber’s blog.

Mann can’t be shocked that the Sierra Club responded as he names them in the article as one of two environmental groups who have very publicly questioned the wisdom and motives of so called “clean coal”.

Mann’s assertion is simple. Coal is too ubiquitous and embedded in the creation of modern comforts for us to seriously consider walking away from. Mann makes this argument reluctantly after laying out in great detail the alarming enormity of coal’s consequences. Coal provides over 40% of global electricity, to say nothing of coal’s monopoly as an input in the creation of steel and concrete, both important raw materials in a growing society. Mann concludes his piece by checking in on the state of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and his findings are equally unsettling. To summarize, CCS technologies are very much in their infancy, are prohibitively expensive and ironically, while require vast sums of energy to operate adding a significant parasitic burden on the output of the facilities they would eventually be affixed to.

As you might expect, in his article Mann eventually turns to renewables and their promise at scaling fast enough to thwart the climate disaster he suggests will likely result from burning the century worth of coal still in the ground. 

What I didn’t expect, but am growing less surprised by is that despite the several hundred words Mann dedicates to the subject of renewables, including quotes from former Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu, he never mentions biomass. Even when, as most stories inevitably do, Mann’s piece points out that wind and solar do not currently generate the “always on” base-load power that stable grids require does he pivot and mention renewable energy’s only commercially proven base load solution.

This is a real opportunity for the broader biomass industry and a drum we simply have to beat louder and more feverishly. Biomass is the only base load quality energy input that relies on biogenic carbon instead of geologic carbon out there and it is being deployed around the world in many different forms, including the re-powering of coal assets with wood pellets. The two features in our June 2013 issue were dedicated to the re-powering of coal assets with woody biomass, both being driven by governmental mandates to drive carbon out of their energy infrastructure. If you haven’t read those two stories, I urge you to do so as companion pieces to the Mann story.

I also urge you to read the Mann story as well as the resultant back and forth between he and Paul Rauber. Finally, I invite you to join me in an effort to bring biomass into the lexicon of mainstream renewable energy discussions. Biomass is base load and while its ability to stave off the kind of calamity Mann’s piece suggests may arise from continued use of coal is a subject for another day, it deserves a mention in any discussion about the role of renewables in our global energy picture.