Riding Shotgun with King Coal

By Tim Portz
The Energy Information Administration reported that as of October 2008, more than 48 percent of the electricity produced and consumed in this country was derived from coal. The U.S. fleet of coal-burning power plants numbers over 100, and new plants are in various stages of development. Additionally, we've all heard that new coal-fired power plants come on line in China almost weekly.

As a proponent of biomass and a professional working in the field, I initially regarded this statistic with some derision. I'm beginning to see, however, that partnering with the coal industry may be one way to expand the use of biomass as a power source.

Coal-burning power plants in this country are supported by a massive infrastructure that harvests coal from the ground, delivers it to generation facilities via rail, and ultimately feeds it into power plants that are optimized to pulverize and combust the material to make electricity.

Comparatively, the biomass industry is in the development stage at each and every step in that process. Equipment manufacturers are building prototypes to efficiently harvest not just grain but also crop residue. Studies are being conducted on finding better ways to move the less energy dense material, and technologies are being developed to effectively harness the power bound up in our country's vast biomass resources.

The challenges presented will not be overcome simultaneously. As an industry, we need to welcome projects that provide us with an opportunity to confront these challenges, even if it is in an a la carte fashion. I look to my home state of Iowa and the opportunity presented to our industry by the coal-fired power plant planned for Marshalltown. The Iowa
Utilities Board granted conditional approval of the Alliant Energy Corp. facility as long as it derives 10 percent of its energy from biomass. While I understand that many in the renewable industry will look upon a 650 megawatt coal-fired power plant as a perpetuation of the fossil fuel paradigm, I see it as an opportunity to develop and prove out a reliable biomass fuel infrastructure.

Biomass's time is definitely upon us and while we are not yet in the driver's seat, we can learn a great deal riding shotgun.

Tim Portz is a business developer with BBI International's Community Initiative to Improve Energy Sustainability. Reach him at [email protected] or (651) 398-9154.