Exploring biomass electricity in the West

By Anna Austin | January 17, 2012

Viability of electricity generation from biomass in the Pacific West was the topic of a panel discussion at the Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show in San Francisco, Calif., Jan. 16-18.

Even though California, Oregon and other Pacific West states have renewable portfolio standards (RPS), the voluntary market for renewable electricity is very large and growing, according to panel presenter Robin Quarrier, counsel for the Center for Resource Solutions. During her presentation, Quarrier discussed modifications the nonprofit organization is making to the biomass section of the Green-e Energy National Standard. 

CRS certifies about 99 percent of the retail RECs in the voluntary market, and 65 percent of all retail sales of renewable electricity, according to Quarrier. Though that seems opportunistic, the one caveat is that the value of voluntary RECs is lower than in the compliance market, she said. Companies that want to buy more renewable energy than the utilities are required to provide them with create the demand in the voluntary market.  This voluntary market is increasingly relevant as state regulators hem and haw about the carbon neutrality of biomass.

When that happens, a renewable electricity producer will look to sell its power into the voluntary market, but prior certification of a project is necessary. “You can try to sell uncertified RECs, but it’s likely nobody will buy them without the Green-e Energy certification,” Quarrier said. Currently, the CRS is working on modifying its REC biomass eligibility standards, and is requesting input from industry members. “My job is to convey your message to our board and tell the story of your renewable technology,” Quarrier said.

So how does this program translate to renewable electricity projects? “Utilities want to make sure when they’re selling renewable energy to customers, they can say it’s certified under our standards,” Quarrier said, reemphasizing that the voluntary market is large and increasing—by 23 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Biomass represents 11 percent of the voluntary REC market. “But it’s not all types,” Quarrier said. “We’re seeing disproportionate increases. We need your input to see how we can cover more technologies, because the current standards may necessarily not be representative of the current state of biomass.”

For example, right now the standards allow for all types of wood waste to qualify. “But what is a waste? You probably don’t want your resources to be called a waste because of EPA restrictions dealing with waste,” Quarrier pointed out. “Also, if it’s a co-product does that make it a waste? This language may need clarification--we need a consistent standard.”

Another area of the standard where modification might be necessary is the section regarding inclusion of all crops and agricultural waste, and all animal and organic wastes. “This one may lead to questions of the types of industries we’re supporting,” she said. "We need to be cognizant of both environmental issues and industry realities.”

All energy crops also meet the standards, and Quarrier points out that if restrictions are placed on one feedstock, it’s important that there is equality across the board. She added that landfill gas and wastewater methane standards are working well, but municipal solid waste (MSW) are practically unattainable. “We’re trying to encourage new technologies and MSW treatment, however, our current standards are so limiting on MSW we haven’t had a single facility meet them,” she said. “So why have unattainable standards? We need to make sure we’re restricting the amount of toxic emissions, but  why have unattainable standards?"

Following Quarrier, University of California –Berkeley Academic Coordinator of Forest Products Gareth Mayhead discussed woody biomass markets and trends in California. “The [biomass] industry here is very, very important,” Mayhead said. “If it wasn’t there, disposal costs would come at a very high price to taxpayers.”

Right now, about 750,000 bone dry tons (BDT) of woody biomass go to California power plants, according to Mayhead. That number is always changing, he added. “The biomass sector is fluid; plants go up and down like yo-yos.”

Mayhead is currently working on a mapping project to gather information about existing and proposed biomass power plants in California, collecting data from facilities, developers and consultants in order to find opportunities for the U.S. Forest Service. Right now, his data shows 28 operational and seven idle facilities in the state, and a prominence of combined-heat-and-power (CHP) applications.

In California’s neighbor to the north, Portland General Electric is weighing its options for the future of its Boardman coal-fired power plant, which is scheduled to cease using coal in 2020. General Manager of Generation Projects Jaisen Mody told panel attendees of its progress to date, which includes partnering with local farmers to grow arundo donax for future test burns.

Mody said the utility considered powering the 585 MW power plant with natural gas, but it didn’t turn out to be feasible. Wood pellets were also tested but gummed up the plant’s pulverizers, so crop research began two years ago and arundo was chosen for its great growth potential. The company is growing on 90 acres right now, and test burns are planned for 2014. “We’ll start at a 10 percent of cofire, and eventually do a 100 percent burn,” Mody said, adding that the crop is growing very well, reaching 10 feet tall in only three months.

 A year prior to the test burns, PGE plans to put out a request for proposals for a torrefaction technology to create torrefied arundo pellets or briquettes. This will be done in order to better match the plant’s infrastructure, and so the fuel can withstand the area’s windy conditions without storage. “We think torrefaction is the right process for us,” Mody said. He added that the plant is located in a depressed area, and employs about 30 people, so repowering it would preserve their jobs.

Moving even farther north, Dalson Energy CEO Thomas Deerfield discussed biomass project opportunities and challenges in the arctic west. Because the region has sparsely populated communities that are very spaced out, connecting to the grid is a huge challenge, according to Dalson, and fossil fuel delivery isn’t viable. In his opinion, small, centralized community-scale solutions are the best option for the arctic west, which has plenty of biomass resources. However, developers should prove a technology before deploying it there, he added. “The north is a great place for testing proven technologies, but it’s not for the faint of heart, or the shallow of pocket.”

Deerfield’s advice to potential project developers is to take a technology-agnostic approach, seek vendor neutrality, avoid engineering blindness, and do preliminary environmental reviews and economic analyses. “Walk before sprinting, because the North Country is beautiful but challenging,” he said.