It is not without sorrow that this will be my last blog entry for Biomass Magazine. I have taken a new position with an engineering firm in Seattle and will be leaving Biomass Magazine after three wonderful years. I have learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed my time crunching numbers, writing blogs, organizing conferences, and, most importantly, networking with many of you. For my last DataPoints Blog, I would like to offer my “lessons learned” for the continued growth of the bioenergy sector.
- Have patience; energy transitions take a long time. The length of time for one energy source to surpass another in a certain sector takes way longer than can ever be anticipated. The classic example is the 100 years that it took for coal to overtake sail power in ocean transit despite relatively cheap inputs, policy support, and the ability of ships to adhere to a schedule with coal. Because of entrenched stakeholders for the not-to-soon-to-be-replaced energy source and long lived existing assets, displacing an energy source with another is a long, drawn-out process. Humanity is also naturally opposed to change, particularly systemic change to established systems that define a society’s well-being and lifestyle. Patience is required even for incremental change from one energy source to another. Anybody that is in the bioenergy sector that lacks patience and expects rapid change will not be here long. One only needs to look to the boom in natural gas over the last half decade and see that coal continues to dominate power generation sector. Change is occurring, but it can be painfully slow.
- Incremental change is necessary and should be celebrated. Building on the first lesson learned, when growth does occurs, however small, the industry is heading in the right direction and needs to be shown to others as an example. Going back to the energy transition that occurred in ocean travel over the 19th Century, many technological advances in the steamship industry came from incremental advances, even some that did not pan-out in their original form. The paddle wheel, for example, was not the ultimate propulsion technology of choice, but its invention and use led to the development of screw propulsion. For this reason, I believe that biomass industry should strongly push co-firing biomass with coal, particularly given Obama’s newly rolled out carbon reduction scheme. I argue that co-firing does not prop the coal industry up and allow it to remain in existence. Rather, co-firing will allow feedstock producers and aggregators to optimize their practices for the day that better conversion technologies of biomass are installed in place of coal. The earliest steamships were hybrid sail/paddlewheel vessels. Biomass is no different, and should use existing fossil energy assets to grow its market presence and to facilitate optimization and technology development.
- Bioenergy must find diverse, niche markets because density is not on its side. The low EROEI of biomass derived energy compared to fossil sources is due in large part to its lack of density in the field or forest. While fossil energy producers have the advantage using an already densified energy product, bioenergy producers must densify feedstock along with converting it into a marketable energy product. This predicament encourages bioenergy projects to serve multiple functions in regards to feedstock and energy product in order to build resiliency in the installation. Dairy digesters are an example of this resiliency where energy production serves primarily as a byproduct of manure management. The generated biogas is used to supplement electricity, heat, or transportation fuel used to run the dairy, but the principal purpose of the digesters is manure management. Diversified, niche markets where biomass is a burden and energy is in demand will provide the most resilient locations for market development.
- Experienced operators are the biomass industry’s greatest asset. Because of the extra aggregating and densifying steps in converting biogenic sources into marketable energy products, there is greater complexity in bioenergy than the fossil fuel industry. With greater complexity comes greater variability throughout the system. To manage that variability, projects need experienced individuals along the entire feedstock-to-energy production line to ensure the variability can be managed. The operators that I have come into contact with at successful bioenergy operations were all well-seasoned individuals and knew their plants and operations well.
- Policy, policy, policy. As painful as policy is to talk or even read about (I’ve noticed that if I have a reference to government or policy in a blog title I get half the hits), we, as industry stakeholders, must exert effort to ensure that bioenergy is supported by policy. From the time of ancient nobles allowing peasants to cut wood on their land, policy has driven how and what energy sources society relies on for economic growth and well-being. Fossil sources would not be where they were without the historical and current supports from governments. When somebody says to me, “Yeah, but can renewables exist without subsidies?” my answer is that no energy could exist without subsidies, even fossil energy. Whether we call them subsidies, incentives, tax-breaks, or true-cost assessments, government representatives are writing our energy future, and we have an obligation to speak up.
The highlight of every week was writing a blog entry for DataPoints. I greatly appreciate you for reading my blog, your comments, and emails.