Bioenergy companies share project groundbreaking stories

By Anna Austin | April 18, 2012

Reaching the point of groundbreaking is no easy task for a bioenergy project developer. Panelists in the second-day general session discussion at the International Biomass Conference & Expo held April 16-19 in Denver, Colo., shared their groundbreaking stories with attendees, delivering valuable pieces of advice and a wide breadth of knowledge.

Joshua Levine, vice president of project development at American Renewables Inc., discussed the company’s experience getting the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center in Gainesville, Fla., off  the ground.  The 100 MW woody biomass-fired facility will utilize a bubbling fluidized bed boiler technology with selective catalytic reduction, a baghouse and a continuous emissions monitoring system. “The thing about the technology is that it is tried and true, and it’s not a science experiment,” Levine said, adding that it would be one of the cleanest biomass facilities in the world.

Describing the project as a success story, Levine said it was the result of a lot of hard work, and that there were some ups and downs. It took a significant amount of time to develop—seven years by the time power production starts at the plant—and necessary permits took over a year to acquire, according to Levine. The company also had a total of 10 public hearings in a span of a year, and faced some minor but loud local opposition. “They really had the ability to really cause us some pain, and appealed all three of our major permits,” he said. “We ended up realizing that they didn’t have legitimate claims against the project, and that their strategy was just one of delay.”

Later on, American Renewables was able to reach an agreement with them and move forward, Levine added.  

One unique aspect of the project—but one that was required to score a power purchase agreement with the city of Gainesville—is a requirement that the plant abide by some feedstock sourcing standards in order to assure that it won’t result in any unsustainable forest practices, Levine said.

Levine said there are several important questions to answer to determine if a project is close to breaking ground. “Where is it located—do they have site control? An off-take agreement? Who is taking the product your you have a contractor lined up and all your permits? If all of these are in place, hopefully you can get to a groundbreaking.”

Pete Nájera, vice president of operations at Enviva LP, began his speech by saying that a project groundbreaking is a victory for the companies involved, but also a victory for everyone in the bioenergy industry.

Nájera spoke about milestones the company has reached during the past year, which includes the acquisition of a deep water terminal, sending its first shipment of pellets to overseas clients, and executing supply agreements with Dominion Power and two European utilities.

Focusing on Enviva’s flagship Ahoskie, N.C., wood pellet plant, Nájera shared a few lessons learned with attendees, including the fact that many things, such as weather, cannot be controlled when a project is on an accelerated timeline. “We had more rainfall than expected, and a hurricane….it took about a week to recover from the hurricane,” he said.

The region also had an earthquake, but it didn’t damage the facility.

Nájera said companies need to manage a long lead time on equipment to stay on a project timeline. “Based on how you’re permitting schedule is going, you’re going to be putting some money down on dryers, hammer mills and presses….in anticipation of breaking ground,” he said.

Quality assurance—installation and quality of construction—has become a serious part of Enviva’s business, Nájera added. “If you want to stay on time, it requires a greater focus on quality of construction and installation…we continue to have lessons learned meetings for each plant.”

Following Nájera, Mike Scott, CEO of biomass gasification technology developer Nexterra Inc., discussed the company’s 2 MW biomass cogeneration project at the University of British Columbia, which will be firing up in May.

Nexterra spent a great deal of time searching for a robust and viable syngas clean-up technology, according to Scott, and found that nobody could meet its desired specifications, so the company developed its own and partnered up with JE Jenbacher.

As is usually the case for bioenergy projects, financing was a challenge, according to Scott. About 25 percent of the cost came from UBC; the remainder from the industry and federal and provincial grants. “It took a lot of people working hard to make this thing happen,” he said.

More challenges included low electricity prices in British Columbia, the fact that buildings don’t have an obvious payback, and that project capital hasn’t been optimized, according to Scott. And like American Renewables’ project, community acceptance was a concern, but the issue was nipped in the bud. “UBC did a great job communicating with the community from the beginning,” he said.

Scott added that doing something new and different for the first time is always difficult and challenging. “The bigger the project, the more difficult it tends to be,” he said.

The final speaker of the panel was Mike Levin, vice president of government affairs for FlexEnergy Inc, which recently completed the first installation of a 250 kilowatt, landfill gas-powered Flex Powerstation at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Fort Benning, Ga., Army post.

The Flex Powerstation combines a modified gas turbine with an adaptation of a proprietary thermal oxidizer and converts methane into electricity. “We’ve taken the combustor out, and it is the first technology to use an oxidizer to generate heat necessary to power a turbine,” Levin explained.

From Levin’s perspective, there is too much focus on destroying methane gas, when it should be cleaned and used to generate power. For example, a closed landfill in Orange County, Calif., has been flaring its methane for years, when it could have been generating electricity, he said, adding that FlexEnergy’s next project will be located there, and it will consist of eight Flex Powerstations.