June 21, 2009

Biomass to Electricity is 80% more efficient than Biofuels

Biomass to Electricity (and torrefaction as a densification and logistics strategy) continues to make more and more sense.

A recent study published in Science concludes that using biomass to produce electricity is 80 percent more efficient than transforming the biomass to biofuels and 200% more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While I understand our infatuation with creating liquid fuels, if biomass is more effective in generating electricity in the near term (and it is) we should apply more funds and political support for biomass combustion (the "burn baby burn" strategy).

Every year we put off addressing global warming in a meaningful way just increases the hole we have to eventually dig out of, and the cost of doing so.

Biomass to electricity is today's solution -- it costs less to implement than the alternatives and it reduces the amount of carbon we pull out of the ground.

I think Ethanol did the industry a huge dis-favor. The numbers on it were just horrible yet it got over-promoted. Now, I'm afraid that we threw the 'baby out with the bathwater' and for a period of time "Ethanol" became synonymous with "BioMass" .

The good news is that time and data are changing that perception. This study is just one more example on how the United States is coming around to what much of Europe has already figured out -- Biomass is the lowest cost, most practical way to make meaningful progress on global warming. It is the most Intelligent Carbon Strategy.


Anonymous said...

First off, I will admit I haven't found the actual study...yet. Having said that, I see some problems: batteries will move people for short distances but they won't replace the diesel engine. How will we move freight, plow fields, or, harvest said biomass? How will people go visit Grandma in NY from, say, Tennessee? I can see societal changes reducing the need for personal transportation but we still need a liquid fuel. I'm not sure it makes sense to use the limited biomass resource for direct electricity. This nation really runs on hi-torque diesel engines. Biomass to electicity may be todays solution but it is not tomorrows. You haven't touched on the value added (more jobs) arguement of fuels vs. electicity. As I understand it, the authors pointed out that they conducted a pure efficiency study and there are many societal effects which must be taken account. There are many options available to provide CO2 free/renewable electricity to vehicles, but very few to replace the diesel engine.

The Better BTU said...

Lets look at this from another perspective.

There is a certain amount of land available for production of biomass. That biomass can be used to either:

A) produce biofuels and replace sequestered carbon in the form of oil.

B) produce electricity and replace sequestered carbon in the form of coal.

B is more efficient than A.

If we displace enough coal, we can have a huge impact on carbon emissions. Since there is no silver bullet, the answers are all relative.

The best solution might be to use economic biomass to electricity conversion to reduce coal consumption and use CNG (dual fueled with diesel) for transportation.

Anonymous said...

If the ultimate goal is lower CO2 emissions then it's pretty simple:

- Replace coal with Nuclear, (accelerate Thorium nuclear if you're one of those scared into paralysis) it produces no CO2 and is dispatchable.

- Use the limited biomass to replace as much diesel as possible. Use off-peak power to make CNG to your earlier point.

I don't understand why nuclear isn't part of the discussion if CO2reduction is our end goal. Those not talking about it have some other agenda: I have yet to figure out what it is. Also, I'll point out that those worried about efficiency of biomass don't seem to worry about the efficiency of wind. Why is that? Don't the same arguements apply?

Anonymous said...

Everyone has their own view of optimal energy mix.

I agree that Nuclear should be part of the discussion on CO2 reduction.

For what its worth, I break the solution down to 'bridge fuels', 'long term solutions', and 'basic research opportunities'

Long term, I think we have to replace coal and some gasoline with Nuclear (electric cars). Electric cars fueled with coal fired generation is just political wind appesement. Reduce the coal% first, and you leverage all work done on electric cars!.

Solar may play a real role in the long term if we get a technological breakthrough. We should drive for that but not count on it.

The bigger issue is the bridge fuels - what do we do now -- because time is precious.

My answer would be:
1) Natural Gas and CNG Now. We have more gas available at decent prices than people understand. While it doesn't help CO2, it does help other pollutants (like mercury) and helps our economy.

2) Biomass fired electrical and thermal generation. It is renewable, and represents a significant carbon reduction. Biomass is competitive today at 9 cents a kWh

3) Geothermal. There is more energy here than people think. It should move to the top of the government funding stack.

4) Wind and Solar -- sure. But the subsidy dollars required are large, and you still have to have power available when the wind don't blow and the sun don't shine. I'd rather see solar dollars go into basic research than promoting the adoption of knowingly uneconomic installations. -- Solar research and geothermal adoption would be a better spend.

4) Energy conservation is an equivalent bridge fuel. We're starting to get the idea here - -but there is much much more we can, and should do here.

5) Forget carbon sequestration by removing carbon from smoke stacks and putting it under ground -- its a bridge too far. Too much cost, to many other issues. Do look at crediting biochar application to farmland. You get cost effective sequestration plus improved soil conditions.

Basic Research:

1) Solar would go to the top of the list here. It really only makes sense if we can get a technological breakthrough and the kind of research that is required is stuff the US is real good at. Double up the dollars on basic solar research.

2) Maybe clean coal. Not sure if it is achievable or not. Better targeted for basic research than the current efforts at adoption.

Take issue with any of the above if you want. It's all about learning and getting the 'right' answer in time!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the comments of the bloggers. I am involved in the entrepreneurial development of torrefaction projects and have a 45 year history in value added forest products development projects. I know or have communicated with the involved businesses that are (or have been) 'building' their plants or propose to buy the fuel. No one producer has the best solution and there need not be one best solution. Most of these processors depend on a fuel (wood chips, logging and sawmill residue and slash) that in many places have better alternative uses or will if any improvement in the economy comes about anytime in the next few years. The diversity needs to widen of acceptable fuels, the processing economics need to make sense absent carbon credits, the costs of plant fabrication need to be cut dramatically. Then, there is a business that becomes sustainable. I think overall, its a fabulous process and a great product. I welcome communication with those interested in building its market acceptance. However, right now, with $1000.00 cash in hand, you couldn't by a ton of torrefied product tomorrow.