The Quest for Renewable Biomass Electricity

By Chris Zygarlicke
Almost two decades ago, utilities began to look for ways to lower sulfur, nitrogen and carbon emissions by cofiring biomass with coal. Biomass was already a contributor to the U.S. electricity portfolio at a level less than 3 percent, with most generated from small industrial plants and the pulp and paper industry. Projects sprang up to study the elements of acquiring, processing and incorporating biomass into coal boilers. Some of these early players-Xcel Energy, Tennessee Valley Authority, Georgia Power, Savannah Electric, New York State Electric and Gas, Foster Wheeler, Electric Power Research Institute, the Energy & Environmental Research Center and the U.S. DOE-conducted ground-breaking research at full-scale and pilot facilities with shoestring budgets.

DOE and the USDA jumped into the picture in 2000 to help promote cofiring by establishing the Biomass Power for Rural Development office. The program was designed to advance the development of electricity generation systems that use biomass instead of fossil fuels to lower emissions, reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, and increase rural benefits such as creating new income sources for farmers, more jobs and economic development. Even with the utility interest and federal programs and incentives, cofiring really didn't go anywhere. However, times have changed, and it appears we are headed for significant power generation from biomass.

Has anything changed since the 1990s to help sustain this newfound desire to cofire or direct-fire biomass?

First, most utilities' service areas cross many state boundaries so their coal-powered generating stations may operate under several different state laws. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which require a certain percentage of renewable energy production. Most utilities are impacted by some states' RPS. Biomass cofiring is an attractive option for utilities since it is a form of baseload power (unlike intermittent wind), it uses a fuel that lowers most emissions except nitrogen, and ideally can be done using existing equipment with some retrofitting.

Second, the U.S. Congress is drafting a global climate bill that may force utilities to consider options that reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Third is the unprecedented amount of federal dollars being poured into renewable energy to make electricity, heat and transportation fuels from biomass. A significant portion of these dollars are for groundbreaking research and development to get new technologies to the small demonstration scale.

In addition to these one-time allotments are the programmatic incentives such as the biomass power producer credit (Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit) of 1.8 cent per kilowatt hour. Several USDA programs also provide dollars to help produce biomass, such as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.

Fourth is the groundswell of biomass providers. Many large utility projects failed because of the lack of a sustainable biomass supply. Plus, the inevitable laws of supply and demand, and the demand for big dollars for the supply always occurs. Experience has shown that the minute a new biopower plant comes on line, the price for the local feedstock seems to rise. Right now, the U.S. is still in a phase where significant quantities of usable forest residues, clean manufacturing wood residues, agricultural residues and municipal wastes still exist. Entities are forming that can procure and deliver this biomass within consistent quantity/quality parameters. Current forest management, agricultural practices, and the future show a looming competition for biomass resources for the biopower industry and the biorefining industry.

For now, as we crawl out of the economic downturn, there is an exciting biomass industry focused on making electricity. Biomass as contributor to the U.S. electricity portfolio at a level greater than 3 percent seems to be certain. BIO

Chris Zygarlicke is a deputy associate director for research at the EERC. Reach him at or (701) 777-5123.