Biomass: No silver bullet, but represents key energy role

By Anna Austin | July 26, 2011

The Energy & Environmental Research Center’s Biomass ’11: Renewable Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Conference being held July 26-27 in Grand Forks, N.D., welcomed more than 250 attendees from 28 states, Washington, D.C. and 11 foreign countries, to discuss trends, opportunities, economics and technological developments surrounding the biomass energy industry.  

The underlying theme during the first day of the conference seemed to be that while next-generation biofuels hold a great deal of promise, commercialization is still a ways off and smaller-scale biomass-based heat and power remains the most economically feasible option.

EERC Director Gerald Groenewold kicked off the ninth annual conference by discussing the nonprofit, its mission and current areas of focus. The EERC is a high-tech division of the University of North Dakota that focuses on applied research, development, demonstration and commercialization of clean energy and environmental technologies. It has signed more than 300 contracts over the past year, according to Groenewold, 87 percent of which were private sector clients. The EERC has had clients from all 50 states and 51 countries, he added.

“As an American citizen, if we’re talking about energy security, I don’t believe in the concept of energy independence,” Groenewold said. “We have Canadian friends who provide a lot of energy to this country and they’re going to continue to, and same thing is true for a few other places around the world. To be energy secure, we need a portfolio of all kinds of energy technologies; we need to look at every possible option.”

On where biomass currently stands, Groenewold says there are lots of challenges, but there are also lots of opportunities. “Biomass has key roles to play, but it’s not a silver bullet,” he said. For biomass power generation specifically, Groenewold says power plants between 10 and 15 megawatts (MW) are a realistic expectation in terms of feasible development in the U.S. “Larger plants won’t be a factor in the U.S., not in the foreseeable future.”

Groenewold discussed some key biomass projects the EERC is involved in, including a program focused on small distributed power generation—100 to 500 kilowatt gasifier systems for electric power that run on feedstocks such as turkey litter—and large-scale biomass gasification, in which he said EERC was seeing significant financial interest, mostly from China and India.  

Following Groenewold’s presentation, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., addressed attendees via video message, touching on North Dakota’s comprehensive energy plan and how he’s working with federal policymakers to craft a similar national policy. “We recognized we need all of our nation’s resources to build our energy future, including fuel and electricity from biomass,” he said. He added that North Dakota has been recognized as having the greatest potential for dedicated energy crops and crop residues, and that its current energy policy encourages investment in projects that utilize them and other renewable energy technologies.  

Chris Zygarlicke, deputy associate director for research at the EERC, addressed trends and opportunities in biomass. He said that fossil fuels will dominate until around 2030, and that natural gas leads energy source growth with about a 2 percent increase each year. “That’s having an impact on biomass and renewables,” he said. “Renewables have seen some growth, but it’s small.”

The main challenges for biomass growth are related to feedstock and its high cost, particularly issues related to processing, and inconsistencies in rules, regulations and policies that will help propel biomass energy forward, Zygarlicke said. “Will it grow? Yes, but it’ll grow along with all the rest of the [renewable] resources.”

In terms of biopower development in the U.S., Zygarlicke said that there is really no interest from large-scale fossil baseload utilities. “That’s because we don’t have the incentives that Europe has, where they’ll pay per ton of carbon that’s alleviated from going into the atmosphere,” he said. “If we did, that would definitely bring interest to the larger scale utilities. However, smaller scale, industrial heat and power does have continued interest.”

Small biopower will keep growing under the radar, from Zygarlicke’s perspective. “It doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but development of smaller plants—distributed energy or larger 15 to 20 MW combustion systems, will continue,” he said. “Larger-scale cofiring/refiring projects will continue to wait in the wings until we see the incentives, and biofuels still need to be proved technologically at commercial scale.”