Power Pundits

Steve Bossotti, Bob Cleaves and Mark Paisley are making a mark on the biomass power industry.
By Anna Simet | March 27, 2014

Most in the biomass power sector recognize the name or face of Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association. Usually boarding several planes per week en route to do so, Cleaves spends his time tirelessly representing, educating and advocating for the industry.

Trained as an attorney—first as a white-collar prosecutor immediately after law school and then in the private sector—Cleaves says he always gravitated toward public policy. “In law school, my dream job was to become an anti-trust lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department,” he says. “I applied, but wasn’t even granted an interview. In hindsight, that was fortunate, because working as an anti-trust lawyer in the Reagan White House would have been a Maytag repairman-like experience.”

While he didn’t get his dream job, Cleaves’s contact at the DOJ told him the environmental section might have openings. “As luck would have it, I interviewed with the head of a white-collar section, who happened to be from Maine. When he learned that I, too, was from Maine, I was hired. That opportunity gave me great insight into environmental laws and policy—knowledge that has proven invaluable in my work for the biomass sector.”

After about 15 years in law, Cleaves sought something new and different, but that utilized the skills he had developed. By the early 2000s, environmental and energy policy converged through the promotion of renewable energy, and Cleaves  had the chance to consult for a subsidiary of Waste Management, Wheelabrator Technologies, and was invited to assist the company in promoting a sector of their business—biomass power—that was outside of their mainstream waste-to-energy business. “I became involved in the biomass trade association, which was then called the USA Biomass Power Producers Alliance,” he says. “I was asked to run the organization in 2008, changed the name, moved it from northern California to Portland, Maine, and the rest is history.”

Cleaves describes his work at BPA as part educating, part advocating. “To do that, we [BPA] need to be present at the federal and state levels—the latter being particularly challenging, given the small nature of our association—participate in seminars, collaborate with other trade associations, and be in the mix on Capitol Hill.”

 A typical week in Bob’s shoes may involve Monday in Maine doing weekly staff calls, Tuesday in a state capital meeting with energy officials on the importance of biomass, Wednesday in a D.C. meeting with fellow trade associations on various initiatives, Thursday on Capitol Hill attending a tax or energy related meeting, and Friday back in Maine planning an event like the BPA annual fly-in.

So what’s changed in the biomass power industry since Cleaves’s debut? “Exposure,” he says, in a word. “Historically, we were a little-known industry that was an “inside baseball” kind of business. Few people understood the value of biomass energy. That has changed, in part because of the renewable energy growth in the U.S., and in part because of the misunderstanding caused by studies like Manomet, which opponents have wrongly used to conclude that biomass is worse than coal.”

The industry has also changed in terms of complexity, Cleaves adds. “Until recently, our focus was federal tax policy—it is now much broader. We need to be a jack-of-all-trades by involving ourselves in a wide variety of energy policy issues, and, importantly, U.S. EPA regulatory matters.”

To adjust to those changes, communication and outreach strategies by the association have become more sophisticated. “Part of that was out of necessity, because of the spotlight that biomass has received in recent years, but it is also because we feel that the single largest hurdle for our industry is the public’s lack of knowledge, and therefore appreciation for what we do,” Cleaves says. “School children in the country know about wind turbines and solar panels, but how many of them can explain how a steam turbine works, and why it makes sense to take waste wood and generate electricity? If we can’t change that, we will never be successful in defeating the misinformation campaign that asserts that we are harvesting natural forests for energy.”

Milestones are being made, however, particularly with federal departments such as the USDA. “Last year, with the help and leadership of USDA and the U.S. Forest Service, we created a public/private partnership and signed a memorandum of understanding,” Cleaves says. “USDA gets it. Biomass energy—to heat our homes and provide electricity to our communities—not only comes from homegrown sources of energy, but it helps solve a critically important challenge for federal land managers facing the challenge of reducing forest fire risk and keeping forests healthy.”

On near-term milestones, Cleaves says he’d like to see the EPA complete its work on biogenic carbon. “There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation, and EPA plays a critically important role in setting the record straight. Once we get the carbon policy settled, Congress needs to put a price on carbon. Without valuing the externalities of carbon emissions, I fear that all renewable technologies—not just biomass— will be unable to realize their full potential. The story of biomass has a long way to go before it’s fully written.”

Steve Bossotti

During his lengthy 25-plus-year career in the energy-from-waste (EfW) sector, Steve Bossotti has performed most roles that a power facility has to offer. Throughout the years, the Bayside, N.Y., native has witnessed this biomass power sector transform, innovate and maximize efficiency. Now a seasoned industry veteran, Bossotti is equipped with the skills and knowhow to help craft cutting-edge strategies to ensure Covanta Energy Inc.’s fleet of facilities are squeezing as much value as possible out of municipal solid waste.

When asked where his work values and drive come from, Bossotti points to his parents. “They were raised during the Great Depression, and taught us there was no substitution for hard work, that it would lead to opportunities in life,” he shares. “Like most kids, I dreamed of being a Major League baseball player, but my skills were better suited for a career focused on math and science. My father was instrumental in guiding me to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and instilling in me a keen interest in engineering. “

Bossotti graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., in 1987, and served his obligation in the Naval Reserves, where he attained the rank of Lieutenant. “It was at Kings Point where I became passionate about people and leadership,” he says. “It was also there that I received my formal education in engineering and gained an interest in steam plants.”

Bossotti’s first job in the EfW business was as a control room operator at a new facility in 1988. “As I do today, I found energy production fascinating, and that I was able to really apply what I learned in school. Thermodynamics, heat transfer, fluid mechanics—I had my own laboratory with a myriad of data points and could demonstrate how they all worked in unison to make energy.”

Bossotti became a shift supervisor within a year, and then received the opportunity to work as a field engineer. “This allowed me to rapidly develop ideas and improvements to systems in the facility,” he says. “I learned to influence without authority in this role, and took pride in making systems better for my coworkers. My colleagues in this industry are some of the most dedicated people you will ever meet, and I knew then that I wanted to help make their lives better while improving the operations of our facilities.” 

That desire led to Bossotti’s first managerial role leading a 24-person maintenance department at one of Covanta’s larger facilities. “I learned a lot about prioritization and planning, and how to stretch a budget in this role,” he says. “I also learned the importance of key performance indicators and open discussion with employees. As with any business, you can often find employees that don’t know what the end goals are, and, ironically, they are the ones with the ability that allows us to attain them. I found that holding round table meetings and open discussions about where to focus, how to improve and what training we needed to stay sharp, were a great help in bridging that gap. Subsequently, we were able to improve facility availability nearly three percent year over year. “ 

Those maintenance achievements led to a promotion to operations engineering manager and eventually facility manager at two of Covanta’s largest facilities. “I learned to directly manage facility finances while standing firm on employee engagement and continuous improvement.” 

 By 2005, Bossotti was promoted to vice president of operations to lead nine facilities and two waste transfer stations.  “In this role, I had the opportunity to see wonderful ideas and different improvements implemented at each facility, and I was able to successfully facilitate the sharing of that knowledge,” he says.

Finally, Bossotti entered the role he presently has—leading a newly formed group dedicated to organic growth and innovation. “In this role, I’m charged with creating new or improved business opportunities at all of our facilities using technology advancements specific to metals recycling, ash reuse and liquids disposal,” he says. “What started as a new, three-person group has now grown to 14 professionals focused on adding revenue through innovative technology and lessons learned.”

Less than 15 years ago, rather than recycling it, Covanta was paying to dispose of metal at some of its plants. Today, it is an important part of the company’s business. “The ferrous and nonferrous metal market advancements have fostered technology improvements that now allow us to recover finer particles of metal for resale,” Bossotti says. “We’re creating business lines that didn’t exist even four years ago—it’s exciting. Today we are focused on new metal recycling systems, and tomorrow it could be something completely different, but I’m sure it will be cool and innovative.” 

Ultimately, Bossotti’s dream is to see EfW facilities in the U.S. reuse ash more often, for better purposes.  “Bottom ash, outside the U.S., is often used for roadbed, drainage and for other construction and industrial purposes,” he says. “A high percentage of ash material from U.S. facilities can be substituted for aggregate, instead of sent to an ash mono-fill for reuse at landfills as daily cover. There are numerous studies that suggest it’s possible, and I have participated in pilot programs with members of academia and industry to study the feasibility of making it work. With the right focus and support from regulators, we can absolutely accomplish ash reuse in the U.S. It would allow us to completely close the loop by utilizing the last remaining waste product from our industry.” 

Mark Paisley

Mark Paisley has been in the biomass industry a long while, likely before it was even recognized as that. Armed with numerous patents and a lengthy, accomplished career history, Paisley’s work has advanced biomass gasification in the country, and his work still isn’t done.

Paisley grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, and attended the University of Cincinnati. “I have always had an interest in science and designing things, so chemical engineering seemed to be a natural,” he says. In college, he had anticipated studying biomedical engineering—a brand new field at the time—but had a change of plans, thanks to the military draft. He eventually accepted a job at Babcock and Wilcox Company at its research center in Alliance, Ohio, and it was there that he began his gasification journey.  “In the early 1970s, in the height of the energy crisis, B&W was working on a number of gasification projects, and I was involved in several of them,” Paisley says. “I caught the alternative energy bug then, and have been involved in gasification projects since. My first patent for a gasification process was issued while I was working at B&W, for a coal gasification process that used sulfur dioxide as the gasifying agent.”

His career at B&W began in 1972, after which he joined Battelle in Columbus, Ohio, where he was employed for 20 years. “During those 20 years, I was fortunate enough to have a dozen patents issued in my name, covering a variety of gasification processes and recycling technologies.  It was at Battelle that I was first introduced to biomass as a gasification feedstock, and I discovered that biomass had many desirable attributes, as well as few of the undesirable attributes that were present in coal.  In short, I became a biomass advocate.”

Paisley’s work at Battelle included inventing what is now known as the SilvaGas process, which was demonstrated at commercial scale in Burlington, Vt., in the late 1990s. When Future Energy Resources bought the SilvaGas process from Battelle in 2000, Paisley moved to the company along with the technology, where he oversaw the final stages of the Vermont gasification program.  Finally, in 2005, Paisley joined Taylor Biomass and invented another biomass gasification process that he says, “further improves the market opportunities for commercial biomass implementation.”

For Paisley, the versatility of products that gasification can produce has been the real appeal of the technology. “Options include replacements for gaseous, liquid, and even solid fuels, and by means of synthesis applications, chemical feedstocks and products can be produced,” Paisley says. “Hydrogen production can also be produced effectively using gasification as the starting point. This sustainability and the potential of biomass to provide a significant impact to the world’s energy supplies continue to keep my interest. “

While no week is the same for Paisley, his activities usually involve travel to and participation in process design activities with engineering partners, authoring and presentation of technical papers for technical meetings, presentation of short courses, data evaluation and interpretation, project development, and test plan development. “Laboratory work related to process operation is also a part of the activity list, but has been limited as the plant [Taylor Biomass Energy’s power plant in Montgomery, N.Y.] has not yet been completed.  I also work closely with the patent attorney in his patent prosecution efforts.”

While widespread deployment of biomass gasification in the U.S. is yet to be seen, Paisley said during his career, one significant change that’s occurred within the sector is that biomass-based energy has developed from an industry-specific energy solution—pulp and paper—to a much more widespread energy option. “Along the way, interest in specific energy products has varied, directed primarily by political option as implemented by the U.S. DOE.  Today’s biomass energy programs, being directed more by industry, are poised to take advantage of the range of energy options available and move into true commercial application.”

Before retirement, Paisley adds, he hopes to see biomass gasification and biomass energy, in general, be recognized and implemented as a significant contributor to the world’s energy supply.

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Biomass Magazine