November 25, 2008

The long and Winding Road

Well, my journey to figure out the economics of biomass and torrefied biomass continues with twists and turns.

Seems to me it should be a simple task.  But it turns out that the answer is a big "Depends".  

That indicates to me that there is at least an 'expertise barrier' to success which might be a good thing.

Here is a summary of the data I have:

1)  Torrefaction at the point of harvest could yield a cost of $ 80 to $ 85 per ton.  However it has not been proven that the model scales, and the field deployable units are not coming to market quickly.

2) Regional Units (or mini-mills as I refer to them) can produce biocoal at $ 110 to $ 130 depending on who you talk to and the underlying price of the feedstock. Obviously folks can play with the depreciation schedule to make the number better or worse. The technology for mini-mills is either A) expensive and proven or B) not quite to the point of mass commercialization. 

3) Green Chips (which is what I understand the recently announced biomass power plants are based on) are economical when the feedstock can be harvested within about 25 miles of the plant. Green Chip prices range from $ 20 to $ 40 depending on the location.  A high percentage of the cost is transportation. My guess is that the utilities are trying to lock up local supply before they start building the plants. From what I understand from a forestry expert, forestry land is starting to rise but I haven't seen it yet in stump prices.

4) Pelletization (without torrefaction) only makes sense because torrefaction has not yet developed.  It has a relatively high capital cost and uses a lot of energy to deliver its densification benefits.  Also, depending on the climate, you have to worry about pellets absorbing moisture during transport. But it is the best the industry has today and it is currently a thriving business based on high prices.

Can't we solve the technical problems and deliver a torrefaction unit that is reasonably low cost and reliable?  From my current vantage point that seems to be the barrier to development of the industry.  The thing that is so frustrating is that if one posits a viable biomass industry worldwide the benefits are so huge -- greater energy independence, jobs, the environment, a path to help developing countries,etc.