IRENA report finds cost reduction potential for biomass power

By Erin Voegele | January 17, 2013

The International Renewable Energy Agency has published a report that provides a comprehensive analysis of the costs and performance of various renewable power technologies that are currently available. The report, titled “Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2012: An Overview,” notes that more than 100 GW of renewable power capacity were brought online in 2011 alone, demonstrating that renewables have gone mainstream and are being supported by a “virtuous circle,” of increasing deployment, fast learning rates and significant, and sometimes rapid, cost decreases.

According to the report, renewable power now accounts for approximately half of all new power generation capacity additions on a worldwide basis. Regarding biomass, 6 GW of biomass-based power generation was brought online in 2011 alone.

The report also notes that in some areas, renewable power production is now the most economical solution for bringing new capacity online. This is especially true in areas where oil-fired generation has is the predominant source of power, such as islands and regions that need off-grid sources of power. “As the cost of renewable power drops, the scope of economically viable applications will increase even further,” said IRENA in the report.

According to the report, some biomass power technologies, such as direct combustion, cofiring, anaerobic digestion, municipal solid waste (MSW) incineration, landfill gas and combined-heat-and-power (CHP) technologies are mature, commercially proven processes with long track records. Other technologies, such as atmospheric biomass gasification and pyrolysis, are in early stages of development. In addition, a wide variety of processes, including integrated gasification combined cycle and biohydrogen production and some biorefining technologies are still in research and development or demonstration phases. This means that the potential cost reductions for the biomass industry are very heterogeneous. “While only marginal cost reductions can be anticipated in the short term, the long-term potential for cost reductions from those technologies that are not yet widely deployed is good,” said the authors in the report.

To analyze the economics of biomass power production, the IRENA considered three primary factors: feedstock type, conversion process and power generation technologies. The report points out that feedstock costs alone can represent 40 to 50 percent of the total cost of biomass power.

In its report, the IRENA estimates that while most biomass combustion technologies are mature, growth in the market will allow capital reductions of 10 to 15 percent to be possible by 2020 for higher-cost markets for stoker, bubbling fluidized bed, and circulating fluidized boiler technologies. With the exception of anaerobic digestion, the cost reduction potential of gasification technologies is expected to be higher. If deployment of these processes accelerates, capital cost reductions ranging from 10 to 20 percent could be possible by 2020.