Biomass Cofiring: Opportunities to Expand the Industry

By Bob Cleaves | September 01, 2014

Last month, a nonprofit, environmental educational group held a lively roundtable discussion with an innovative, large-scale land restoration company to discuss a white paper on biomass cofiring that the two groups recently collaborated on. (The paper is still in revision, so the groups have asked us not to disclose their names.) The group assembled at the roundtable, which represented government, industry and NGOs, agreed that cofiring could be an important mitigation option to make available to power plants under Section 111(d).

The paper explored opportunities for cofiring biomass and coal at power plants in both the U.S. and China, saying in the introduction, “…there appears to be scope to bridge the gap between economic and environmental concerns when applying rigorous, well-enforced, yet feasible sustainability requirements to bioenergy programs, particularly when biomass is used to directly offset coal use in a cofiring scenario.”

The U.S. and China were chosen for the study because of the increased focus here on reducing power plant emissions, and because China is the world’s largest coal emitter, burning half the world’s total coal consumption. It found that “…sustainable biomass, as assessed through a rigorous sustainability framework, has the technical potential to offset 25 and 33 percent of current coal use from the power sector in China and the U.S., respectively.”

While cofiring on a large scale has a long way to go before it becomes commonplace in the U.S., the paper and the roundtable made some insightful points about the biomass industry. It’s worth considering cofiring as a potential growth avenue for the industry, particularly if the U.S. government identifies these technologies as a solution for cutting emissions from power plants.

The paper looked at several methods of cofiring, as well as many factors that would affect the emissions profile of a cofiring scenario. The authors also looked at the possibilities for dedicated energy crops, and emphasized the need to be rigorous about following sustainability practices when sourcing fuel, including replanting trees and maintaining land use.

The paper cites a number of factors that explain the barriers to increased deployment of cofiring. Cost is a major concern, compounded by the lack of national policy to reduce carbon emissions. On the other hand, the U.S. coal fleet is aging, and, if the Clean Power Plan moves forward, there might be significant opportunities in the coming years to retrofit or rebuild these facilities with potential for cofiring.

Regardless of any of the practical limitations that exist for large-scale biomass cofiring to become a reality in the near future, it is certainly encouraging for the industry to know that biomass is being considered as a crucial carbon mitigation strategy. Even if cofiring is not universally used, it may still represent one of the most cost-effective mitigation options for many plants. Cofiring could eventually become a growth area for the biomass industry, with the right policies supporting it where it makes sense.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association