Significant Biomass Power Generation: Still Waiting in the Wings

By Chris Zygarlicke | July 28, 2011

Over the past year, I have been in interesting meetings with a variety of national and international leaders of energy businesses and federal institutions regarding biomass- and fossil-based energy.
The Energy & Environmental Research Center has a long legacy of working both in fossil energy and renewable energy. In the early formative years, between the 1950s and the 1980s, the focus was primarily on coal. As I see it right now, there is a real struggle to determine where biomass’s place is in the energy scheme worldwide.

A simple yet germane assessment of biomass use in the world is that most of Europe has renewable energy mandates and carbon trading that has driven significant biomass use. North America has some state- or province-driven renewable portfolio standards that have stimulated some biomass use. South America is just now beginning to formulate federal mandates for biomass energy use. Most of Asia and Australia have been so busy trying to deal with expanded coal and gas use that biomass has generally been just an after-thought.

The real drivers for biomass utilization continue to be competitive costs, reduction in carbon emissions and, to a lesser degree, the need to dispose of unwanted or hazardous waste. With respect to cost, the United States is a good example of power generators needing to see biomass as cost-competitive with coal or gas. State renewable portfolio standards have incentivized some biomass energy production in smaller 10- to 50-megawatt (MW) power plants, but cofiring of biomass in utility boilers greater than 100 MW is virtually a nonfactor in U.S. power generation.

With respect to greenhouse gas reduction as a driver for biomass energy, we must look to Europe. Within the context of long-term planning, European electricity production is undergoing a significant transition. Europe desperately wants to reduce carbon emissions, but in such a way that capital costs will not bankrupt European financial systems. Europe has opened a significant door to biomass-derived energy over the past 15 years with renewable energy mandates and salable carbon credits. Many European countries have renewable energy mandates of 20 percent total electricity.
Coupled with payments for abated or traded carbon, biomass can, in some cases, be economically shipped over vast ocean expanses to Europe as wood pellets. This is occurring with some European countries that are constrained with respect to nonfood biomass supply.

All that said, biomass may still find some struggles for expansion in Europe. What I’ve learned from our European clients and friends is that if overall carbon abatement is the goal for the next 50 to 100 years, many more gigatons of carbon will be kept from the environment by building more efficient supercritical coal boilers with carbon capture and storage, rather than burning 20 to 30 percent biomass across all European utilities. This scenario alarms some people, but it is a scenario that actually plays out, not only for much lower carbon emissions but, surprisingly, for much lower cost.
At least with the United States, the bottom line, as we have all surmised over and over again, is that biomass will continue to be of great interest to augment fossil energy production. However, significant advances in biomass power generation are still waiting in the wings for drivers such as carbon regulations, carbon trading, renewable portfolios or economic incentives.

Author: Chris Zygarlicke
Deputy Associate Director for Research,
 Energy & Environmental Research Center
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