Biomass conference panel discusses biomass co-firing

By Rona Johnson | November 03, 2010

Utilities are willing to move forward to reduce carbon emissions and co-fire or repower their facilities with biomass and believe it is a viable option, but there are some obstacles standing in their way, including fuel supply availability, logistics and performance, and government regulations.

That was the consensus of the first plenary session of the Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show in Atlanta, Examining the Viability of Biomass Co-Firing as a Renewable Energy Opportunity in the Southeast.

The two panelists who represented utilities have approached biomass utilization from different perspectives. “We are the first and only state to have a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) in the Southeast,” said Tracy Leslie, renewable energy strategy manager for Duke Energy. North Carolina, where Duke Energy does business, has a goal to replace 12.5 percent of its electricity with renewables by 2021. Despite the mandate, Duke Energy recognizes the opportunities for developing local fuel supplies and how that could benefit loggers and landowners, she added.

Duke Energy is currently co-firing with biomass at its Lee Steam Station in South Carolina and is waiting for permitting to use biomass at its Buck Steam Station in North Carolina. The company has also developed sites to demonstrate biomass woody and perennial biomass plants and planting techniques.

Although Duke Energy recently prevailed when it was determined that whole tree chips would be included in the definition of woody biomass in North Carolina’s RPS, the company has the same concerns as others looking to utilize biomass: price escalation, competition and having a sustainable supply. U.S. EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule and its recent Industrial Maximum Achievable Control Technology (IB MACT) ruling are also cooling utilities’ attitudes towards biomass.

Unlike Duke Energy, Southern Co. operates in states where there is no RPS, said Jeff Wilson, senior engineer, research and development for the utility, which produces more than 40,000 megawatts of electricity in the southeast. And there is little demand for green power from consumers.

However, half of the company’s power is generated by coal and that will have to be cut in half using new generation sources by 2015.

The company is looking at several options including nuclear, biomass and natural gas. Initially it was determined that it would be viable to convert its Plant Mitchell to biomass even without an RPS because the cost of delivering coal to that plant is so high. That project has been put on hold until the EPA irons out the IB MACT and Tailoring Rule, he said.

“The EPA Tailoring Rule could kill biomass in its tracks,” he said. As far as the IB MACT, Wilson said the EPA has created a “Franken-Plant” with standards that may be unachievable.

In the meantime, the company has put competition aside and will continue to test biomass combustion options and is attempting to answer questions such as what will it do to boilers, selective catalytic reduction systems and fly ash.

Wilson criticized lawmakers for pushing biofuels and not biopower specifically. Wilson also touched on the negative press that biomass is currently enduring in light of the conclusions of a study conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences that generated news stories concluding that woody biomass was worse than coal. The industry has also been unfairly criticized by people who think that biopower facilities are going to clear-cut forests to produce power.

As Christopher Galik, research coordinator, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Climate Change Policy Partnership, Duke University, pointed out over time you have a greater number of forested acres where there is demand for woody biomass. 

Robert Welch, vice president of sustainable Generation Soulutions for KEMA Inc., suggested that the U.S. biomass industry not plow land that has already been plowed and instead look to Europe for answers to some of their questions. He said there are currently more incentives in development in Europe where woody biomass is considered to be carbon neutral, and he expects that demand for biomass pellets from the U.S. will increase.