The Power of Punctilious Planning

Biomass power projects are not immune to failure, but with strong partnerships and careful planning, they can be successful.
By Anna Austin | January 05, 2012

Visiting Eastern Illinois University, one might have a difficult time finding its biomass energy plant. That’s because it’s housed in a beautiful, modern-looking building that’s a far cry from the typical appearance of a power plant.

The facility, which burned its last ton of coal in December of 2010, was completed in October after many years of careful planning. In fact, EIU realized that it needed to replace its current energy system in the 1990s, according to Ryan Siegal, EIU campus and sustainability coordinator. This was due to deferred maintenance and ongoing operational issues of the coal boilers that were installed in 1950 and housed in a steam plant built in 1928.

As more university energy systems become inefficient and need upgrades or replacements, all options are being explored, and some are looking at what other universities have done. For many, biomass is a local, inexpensive and environmentally friendly way to go.

Unfortunately, not all projects have a happy ending. The University of South Carolina has recently made headlines for its biomass power plant failure, and not only has it raised questions regarding the effectiveness of some biomass power projects, but because of a series of small explosions at the plant, their safety has also been questioned. Those involved in successful and ongoing projects, however, know that it is not the technology that caused the issues at USC, and that problems can be avoided with proper planning and plant operator experience.  

Performance Guarantees are Key

While EIU’s plant performance is still being measured and confirmed, Siegal says so far, so good. “The key to our success has been an operating staff that is excited and passionate about making the systems work,” he says. “We have a knowledgeable engineering team for the design of the systems, and a good partner firm—Honeywell—that brought multiple partners together to make a successful project. Our long-term partnership encourages a quality, durable and long-lasting design.”

In embarking on the quest of installing a new energy system, the first step in the planning process was determining how EIU was going to pay for it. Though the need for a new energy system was pressing, financing was an issue. “EIU placed the steam plant on their capital replacement requests for several years, with no recognition for state funding,” Siegal says.

On the other hand, making repairs to the existing energy system was expensive and inconvenient. “The coal system still relied on some equipment built with the original plant in 1928 and parts have been unavailable for years, so when failures did occur, parts had to be manufactured, which was costly and time-consuming,” he says.

Searching for a solution, EIU performed multiple feasibility studies of potential replacements using various clean coal technologies over the years, but all of them were cost prohibitive. In 2006, however, a law was passed that changed the game for EIU. “The law that allowed for energy performance contracts was modified to extend the allowable payback of projects from 10 years to 20 years,” Siegal explains. “This made consideration of large-scale central plants possible. Around this time, the issue of climate change came about and coal fell out of favor, so we broadened our horizons. As we explored various alternatives, biomass was found to be potentially available in our region at a cost-effective price.”

The economics and environmental impact of biomass made it attractive to EIU, especially when compared with the alternatives. It had a lower cost than coal to construct, it appeared to be cost-competitive with coal with a much less volatile fuel price than natural gas, and it was much more environmentally friendly than either of the two alternatives. And, the biomass gasification system allows for more fuel flexibility, Siegal adds. “Wood chips won’t be the final answer,” he says.

“Gasification allows for a broader fuel spectrum, so we can be prepared for whatever the new fuel down the road will be. We didn’t want to be stuck with just one option.”

From groundbreaking to operation, the facility was completed in less than 24 months. This was due in part to the performance contract process, a key component in planning the project. “The performance contractor gets paid once the plant is performing as intended, and is a 20-year partnership,” Siegal explains. “This encourages the completion of the facility as quickly as feasible, but also to construct a quality facility that will last, as a plant that fails to operate does neither partner good.”

Robert Duringer, University of Montana, vice president of administration and finance says the school’s energy performance contract with McKinstry, a Seattle-based consulting firm, is a safety net for its proposed biomass energy project. “They’ve provided us with a performance guarantee that says the system will displace 70 percent of the natural gas we currently use,” Duringer says. “If it only displaces 65 percent, we will use the price of natural gas to figure out how much money they’d need to pay us.” Unfortunately, low natural gas prices prompted the university to indefinitely suspend its biomass power project, following Duringer's interview with Biomass Power & Thermal.

Though some opposed to the project at UM pointed to the USC project as an example of why it shouldn’t move forward, Duringer says it didn't discourage the university from biomass. Besides the safety net of a performance guarantee, the contract included an annual inspection to make sure all equipment was operating as it should. In addition, employees would have been put through a training program. Having a plant operator on staff at all times—24/7—prevents potential fuel flow or other problems, Duringer says.

Experience is Essential

Trained, experienced operators are essential at plants that utilize biomass fuel, according to David Claus, energy manager at the University of Northern British Columbia. UNBC has been operating its biomass gasification energy plant for about a year, and utilizes hog fuel—unprocessed and nonuniform chips or mill residues—to heat the campus’s core buildings.

When moving from one energy system to another, especially when hog fuel is used, it’s a whole new ball game for plant personnel, Claus says. “It’s one thing to be aware that this kind of plant will mean higher operations and maintenance costs, but it’s another to actually get a handle on what it’s like to operate,” he says.

University facility staff are used to working with natural gas boilers, heat exchangers and neat mechanical rooms, Claus says. “A bioenergy plant is quite different than what they’re used to dealing with. You’re moving hog fuel around, you have drag chains, conveyor belts, hydraulic systems … it is industrial infrastructure, so the university needs to decide if it is ready to take this on. Pellets are one thing, but straight up hog fuel requires knowledge of how to operate the plant. It has a difficult handling nature, so it’s important to hire somebody who knows how to do this.” 

Siegal says during the planning process, EIU wanted to get information straight from the horse’s mouth. To do that, it engaged in discussions with others already operating similar biomass energy systems to get a feel for what operating one requires, including how troublesome they are, maintenance requirements and any pitfalls.

Claus says that in time, the system at UNBC will largely serve as a resource for others looking for information on the efficiency and environmental performance of biomass gasification systems. The university is collecting data, he says, and will be able to provide that in the future.

While he’s confident the technology provided by Nexterra Inc. is quite clean, UNBC also installed an electrostatic precipitator (ESP) to go the extra mile, another part of the planning process that can help avoid potential problems, as public emission concerns commonly need to be addressed during planning and development of biomass projects.

Going the Extra Mile

“We spent $1 million to put in an ESP to keep our emissions, especially particulate matter, really low,” Claus explains. “I wouldn’t consider doing a project without it. A lot of people doing biomass projects seem to be looking for a technology provider that has a clean enough technology that they don’t need to spend the money on an ESP, but I’m not sure that’s a good avenue to take. You can bring your emissions way down, and you’re further ahead in the long run. With a gasifier, maybe our emissions will be lower and maybe they won’t, but we put in an ESP to make sure they will be.”

Besides installing the best emissions control technology possible, there are other ways for universities to go the extra mile to avoid headaches, and one is thoroughly investigating multiple technology providers/contractors. UM did its homework when it came to selecting a vendor, according to Duringer. “We worked through every manner and style of biomass-fired boiler,” he says.

Another way is to address public concerns early on. EIU took matters seriously, according to Seiger. Initially, there was some local opposition to the first design of the plant, which was fairly industrial-looking and bare bones, he says. “It was the minimum to get the job done, but after some substantial pushback from the local community, we had it redesigned to something much more modern and aesthetically pleasing. After that, the community was very much behind it.”

Finally, Claus says it’s also important for universities to provide a budget to allow a system that is going to work, including extras, rather than trying to cut corners with the bare minimum. “For example, with hog fuel, you’re going to have oversized or off-spec material, and it’s worth getting a system that will take that out,” he says. “We don’t have that at UNBC, but we should. If you get stuff too big for your augers, that’s a problem.” 

A metal detection device is also worth the investment, he adds.

Siegal admits that while biomass projects aren’t perfect, EIU’s current system is much better than what it had before. He says the university hopes to utilize energy crops as a fuel source, as soon as they reach commercial scale.  

Overall, EIU is serving as an example of a successful, innovative university biomass project, he adds. “While there are other biomass projects planned and in the pipeline, we’re one of the only ones in operation. We’re on the leading edge, and hopefully the market will develop behind us.”

Author: Anna Austin
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 738-4968
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