Another coal plant to be replaced by a ‘plant’ plant!

FirstEnergy retooling coal plant to burn biomass from fast-growing trees and grasses

The best and cheapest near-term strategy for reducing coal plant CO2 emissions without forcing utilities to simply walk away from their entire capital investment is to replace that coal with biomass.  Utilities can replace the coal partly, aka cofiring (see “If Obama stops dirty coal, as he must, what will replace it? Part 2: An intro to biomass cofiring“) or wholly, aka repowering (see “Southern Company embraces the only practical and affordable way to ‘capture’ emissions at a coal plant today “” run it on biomass“).

Cofiring could generate some 26 GW of high-availability low-carbon baseload power by 2020.  Energy Daily (subs. req’d) notes of the growing trend:

Over the past three years, Southern Co., Northeast Utilities, Dynegy, Xcel Energy, and DTE Energy have either converted plants or are in the process of doing so.

This month, another major utility joined the biomass bandwagon:

In a move cheered by Ohio officials, FirstEnergy Corp. announced Wednesday plans to re-power two units of its R. E. Burger coal-fired power plant to burn biomass to produce up to 312 megawatts, making the 54-year-old facility one of the nation’s largest biomass power plants and the first biomass plant in FirstEnergy’s generation portfolio.

The two Burger units had been targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review provisions. Under terms of a 2005 consent decree settling the EPA charges, FirstEnergy faced a Tuesday midnight deadline to decide whether to close the plant, install pollution controls to allow continued coal-fired generation or re-power the units to burn biomass.

Company officials said a variety of factors led FirstEnergy to choose the $200 million retrofit option, including the impact on local residents of closing the plant, Ohio’s renewable energy mandate and the increasing likelihood of future federal carbon regulation.

So it turns out you can meet renewable mandates, cut carbon use, and preserve jobs.  That is indeed a win-win-win.  In fact, you can even create jobs:

“This project will help jump-start the biomass renewable energy industry here in Ohio and also serve as a model for projects throughout the United States,” Strickland said. “In addition to retaining jobs at the Burger Plant, this project has the potential to create additional jobs and investments, particularly as biomass fuel suppliers work to meet the needs of this operation and as other renewable energy projects are developed in Ohio.”

Here are some more details on the “plant” plant and its fuel:

When the retrofit is completed, the Burger Plant initially will use wood wastes and other biomass to fuel the facility. FirstEnergy’s goal, however, is to operate the plant as a “closed loop” biomass plant, which means it will use fuel derived from trees grown to serve as feedstock for the biomass fuel, said company spokeswoman Ellen Raines.

As a closed-loop biomass plant, the project would be carbon-neutral. The energy crop trees would act as a carbon sink, storing carbon in the trees’ tissues and roots. When harvested and burned, the stored carbon would be released, but the net carbon footprint would be zero, Raines said.

FirstEnergy has a tentative agreement with Renafuel LLC, a subsidiary of Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources–a global iron mining company–to take fast-growing, bio-engineered cottonwood trees and grasses grown in Ohio and press the biomass into cubes in a new factory Renafuel is building. The cubes will be pulverized and blown into the Burger Plant’s retrofitted boilers in much the same way coal plants use pulverized coal.

Raines said state and local elected officials urged FirstEnergy to keep the Burger Plant in operation to preserve local jobs and continue local and state tax payments.

In addition, putting controls on the facility to allow continued coal use would have cost $330 million, more than half again as much as the $200 million cost of the biomass retrofit.

But Raines said a new Ohio renewables mandate played a key role in the decision to convert the plant to burn biomass. The law requires utilities to obtain 12.5 percent of their power from renewable resources, and at least half of that must be generated within Ohio.

“The renewables mandate was one of the big factors, and with the prospects of [federal] carbon legislation, having a carbon-neutral facility is a real benefit,” she said.

I don’t make stock recommendations here, but somebody who does cited my first cofiring post, so WordPress  directed me to “Andritz Group: Investing in Wood Pellets.”  Again, I tend to think it is a mistake to recommend stocks based on the technology sector they are in.  A company with good solar or wind technology, for instance, can fail for reasons having nothing to do with their technology or market space — bad management being the most obvious reason.  But the article is an interesting one on the wood pellets market.

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20 Responses to Another coal plant to be replaced by a ‘plant’ plant!

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    Co-firing is a start, but just a start to the potential of biomass energy for helping to solve this problem.

    Any amount of biomass burned reduces emissions from fossil fuels.

    But biomass has huge potential to be used as a really decisive tool in the fight against runaway climate change.

    Biomass can be carbonized into biocarbon or biocoal by pyrolysis, and then compressed to form carbon pellets. This fuel is practically identical to coal, and could likely be burned in exiisting coal plants, entirely displacing all of their coal, with little if any modification of the plant. Biocarbon is also much more transportable than biomass, because it is denser, does not decay, and is lower in water.

    Switching the coal plant entirely to biocarbon results in a carbon neutral power plant, if all of the transportation and harvesting efforts are also run off of biomass energy, (quite possible) and if the biomass is replanted.

    A next possible step is to retrofit the coal plant to oxyfuel combustion, as has recently been done with a small coal plant by Jupiter Oxygen Corporation and the National Energy Technology Lab. Running the plant without exhaust gas recirculation, they were actually able to increase the efficiency of this plant by almost 7 percent relative to other oxyfuel combustio approaches, by running the boiler at a higher temperature. This did not damage the boiler (something to do with oxyfuel flames having a higher luminosity than air combustion flames), and this extra 7 percent fuel efficiency is roughly enough efficiency to compensate for separating the oxygen from the air and compressing the resulting nearly pure stream of CO2 for deep injection.

    The next step is to deep inject or otherwise store or sequester the CO2 outside of the atmosphere. This would result in a carbon negative power plant which would actually take carbon out of the atmosphere, while generating electricity. Ultimately, the captured CO2 should be transformed into a carbonate, in my opinion, but deep injection is a reasonable stopgap measure for a few years until we can figure out how to do carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation economically.

    Carbon negative power plants could have a tremendous synergistic effect on the whole problem.

    Firstly, they prevent carbon from fossil fuels from getting into the air.

    Secondly, they take biomass carbon and put it underground.

    Thirdly, they generate electricity.

    Fourthly, they could assist in fire control efforts, by taking biomass from cutting firebreaks through the forests and clearing of combustible undergrowth, and sequestering it while minimizing the size of the huge wildfires we have been seeing lately.

    Fifthly, the electricity generated by the plants can be used to run electric cars, displacing fossil carbon from combustion of petroleum distillates.

    This strategy of converting the coal plants to carbon negative power plants could be a synergistic “magic bullet” answer to this problem, and in conjunction with the stabilization wedges approach advocated by this blog, could realistically be effective in actually reducing CO2 levels and preventing runaway climate change.

  2. Stefan Min says:

    How much fuel crop area will such a plant need?
    Energy production per year:
    300 MW times 6000 hours per year = 1’800’000 MWh per year (enough for a city of 200’000 people)

    Biomass production per year:
    Miscanthus produces 30 t of biomass per hectare at 5 MWh per ton = 150 MWh/ha*yr

    1’800’000 (MWh/year)/ 150 (MWh/ha*year) = 12’000 ha = 120 km**2 = 44 sqm

    44 sqm of dedicated fuel crops are needed for just a small power plant.
    For this, I think that biomass is better used for co-generation in decentralized units (however, that would make CCS impossible). Obviously, radical energy efficiency is needed to stretch the limited supply of biomass fuel (by up to a factor of 5).

    The area of 120 km**2 used for PV would produce about 12 GW (peak) or 12’000 GWh per year.

  3. Leland Palmer says:

    Read and Lermit do some calculations like this, too, and the fact that biomass would take large land area is true.

    But, our forests are burning, and we haven’t seen anything, ever, like the firestorms that are coming if decisive action is not taken.

    So, what I advocate is cutting firebreaks through existing forests, and clearing out combustible undergrowth, and using that biomass, along with agricultural biomass like straw, corn stover, paper plant waste, municipal garbage, and so on, as initial sources of biomass.

    Oak Ridge Lab finds 1.2 billion tons of biomass “waste” that could be burned per year in the U.S., equivalent to something like 300-400 million tons of coal.

    In this emergency, and including more biomass from the forests, from firebreaks and combustible undergrowth, we should be able to double or triple that. Then, there are always shiploads of biocarbon from tropical countries that could be imported. Those countries’ own forests are going to be threatened by global warming, and are going to need to be fire protected and cleared of combustible undergrowth.

    Dedicated biomass plantations are the route advocated by Read and Lermit, though, especially in the tropics. Australia could also transform itself from one of the worlds biggest coal exporters to one of the world’s biggest biocarbon “green coal substitute” exporters, and protect themselves from their own catastrophic bushfires.

    What biocarbon could be, though, is a way of transporting and storing biomass energy, from a huge variety of biomass sources including sewage sludge, and any sort of carbonaceous waste.

    This should all be done with more intensive forest management, and massive replanting efforts, of course, as well as the use of biochar to rebuild soils.

    The biomass productivity of the biosphere is much more than enough to run our entire civilization, though.

    Out of time – gotta go to work. Thanks for the reply.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Great article, this is going to be a long road but its good to see some progress on the energy development side of things.

  5. hapa says:

    for cross-reference, lester brown & co predict/advocate double the biomass energy use by 2020 — 60% increase for heat, 340% increase for electricity.

  6. hapa says:

    in petajoules:

    elec: 1135 → 5048
    heat: 5550 → 8830

  7. ecostew says:

    Availability of biomass is an issue and the haul distances cannot be too great or energy density becomes a serious issue:

    [JR: Actually, most of the biomass analyses you have read, including ones on the haul distances, are not terribly useful in a carbon constrained world. Competing with already paid off coal — maybe $.02-$.04 a kwh, is tough economics for anyone to meet. Competing against new baseload carbon free power — maybe $.12 to $.14 or more per kWh — and you open a very big window for biomass.]

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Do Not Co-fire Biomass With Coal. The solid wastes are completely useless.

    Do fire side by side, as in the porject discussed in this thread. On the coal side, the fly ash has a number of industrial uses. On the biomass side, the ash contains nutrients which need to go back to the soil.

    In particular, there is a rather limited supply of minable phosphate. This is an essential plant nutrient for which there is no substitute. Do not waste it; recycle it.

  9. ecostew says:

    The size of regional biomass power plants is potentially constrained by EROEI, which is related to biomass footprint, which includes energy density. For example, a waste from timber harvest power plant has a larger footprint due to rotating of harvest cuts, which have a lower per acre yield of fuel than harvesting all available timber, especially under sustainable management practices. Fueling a power plant from fast growing timber plantations allows one to minimize the footprint, but has its issues, which may include competing for cropland. Cropland biomass has similar relationships. I do support biomass power plants, however, I tend to think that they should and will tend to be regional and smaller.

  10. I am with ecostew above that biomass power plants need to be limited in scope. If we try to substitute biomass for the massive amount of coal now being used we will start to run into resource conflicts pretty quickly with other uses for land, water, and plant matter.

    These are the same conflicts that arise when using biomass to make biofuels. Yes it is more efficient to turn biomass into electricity and heat than it is to turn it into biofuels but we are still dealing with the multiple resource needs of growing plants and the limited efficient of photosynthesis.

    A sensible way to use biomass power plants is as a support for more intermittent resources like wind and solar PV. Jurgen Schmid of ISET in Kassel has done some interesting work on combining renewable resources to more closely match energy supply with energy demand on the grid. Incentive structures for renewable generators need to be built that encourage this type of cooperation between types of renewable generator.

  11. ecostew says:

    Yes Hoexter! All policy must be driven by LCA informed by peer-reviewed science.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Algae for biofuels is promising and ought to be cost-competative within two years. Since algae are highly productive little land, (any sort will do) is required. Sea water algae obviously do not require fresh water supplies, just proximity to the ocean.

    ecostew — What is LCA?

  13. ecostew says:

    life cycle analysis

  14. ecostew says:

    Algal biofuels, I am a bit skeptical as the EROEI is not promising.

  15. David B. Benson says:

    ecostew — Two main obstacles have been overcome already, although the first may only apply to fresh water algae.

    (1) Separate algae and water: new technique lowers the cost to feasibility.
    (2) Oil extraction, via a suitable catalyst, is claiming commercial viability.

    Of course the resulting oils are best suited for biodiesel and bio-jet-fuel. Other fuels can be made, but it costs $$.

    to keep up with the fast paced developments.

  16. Leland Palmer says:

    With regard to land area – biomass is not limited by land area, in itself. Competition with food crops is another thing, but I believe this to be an easily manageable problem, in contrast to potential runaway warming leading to a methane catastrophe. For one thing, economic incentives to turn cropland into biomass production could be countered with subsidies, and information constantly gathered to monitor how well any subsidy programs are working.

    With regard to transportability, conversion of biomass to biocarbon close to the source removes a lot of the traditional constraints associated with biomass. Biocarbon makes biomass as transportable as coal. Further constraints with regard to transportability could be removed by transporting biocarbon by coal slurry or coal log pipeline techniques, with much less environmental impact than coal because biocarbon is much cleaner.

    With regard to energy density, this is a problem, but it also is a manageable one, in my opinion. For one thing, forests are going to have to be more intensively managed to prevent firestorms, hopefully for only a few decades, until we get CO2 down again to roughly current levels or below (assuming that we are able to turn the corner on this problem at all). Since biomass is being gathered from existing forests by cutting firebreaks and clearing undergrowth, and perhaps some selective logging, less dedicated biomass plantation land will be necessary. Also, since the impact of carbon negative combustion/sequestration on global warming is much greater than the impact of simple combustion with no carbon capture, less biomass is necessary to turn the corner on this problem. These are some of the synergies of carbon negative power production combined with intensive forest management and simultaneous production of electricity.

  17. Pangolin says:

    I’m of the opinion that this is an half-idiot idea. We have a nice fat source of biomass sufficient for firing in a coal plant. Our options are to:

    1) Compost the biomass returning 95% of the carbon to greenhouse gasses in 10 years or less but sequestering 5% and reducing nitrate emissions from croplands.

    2) Pyrolize the biomass, use 70% of the carbon as producer gas to fire an IGCC coal plant and sequester the other 30% of the carbon as biochar crop amendment that reduces agricultural nitrate emissions on millenial timescales.

    3) Burn the biomass returning 100% of the carbon as greenhouse gases to the atmosphere

    I know, lets use the option that returns 100% of the carbon to the atmosphere and robs the soil of phosphates and other essential nutrients because we don’t return the ash to cropland. There’s gigatons of excess carbon in the atmosphere and sequestering this little bit won’t matter. (note sarcasm)

    It’s really not a wonder that we’re destroying the biosphere. It’s a wonder that anyone can still muster the energy to fight the general morass of stupidity.

    [JR: Uhh, option 1 doesn’t generate any carbon-free electricity, which in case you haven’t noticed we are sorely in need of. Uhh, how many IGCC coal plants do we have in this country? Answer — not bloody many. Do you have any idea how phenomenally expensive they are? Given how much energy efficiency and renewable energy we’re going to do, we aren’t going to build many IGCC plants anytime soon. Anybody can win an argument against strawmen.]

  18. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Pangolin-

    The ability to generate carbon-free electricity is crucial, IMO. But the ability to generate carbon negative electricity is even more crucial, I think.

    Nobody likes the idea of carbon storage by deep injection.

    But fighting runaway global warming is all about billions of tons of carbon. Billions of tons of carbon from coal are entering our atmosphere each year. The traditional carbon sinks like the forests and oceans are becoming saturated, and runaway warming looks likely to turn them from net carbon sinks into net carbon sources.

    In order to fight runaway warming without any help from our previous carbon sinks we have to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it somehow, at this point.

    Carbon negative energy produced by combining biomass with carbon capture and storage can do this.

    The remaining weak link, I’ll admit it, is carbon storage by deep injection. Carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation would be preferable.

    We’re out of time, I think. We need to do something massive, now, to avoid a methane catastrophe.

    We ought to just seize the coal fired power plants, here in the U.S., and forcibly convert them to oxyfuel/biocarbon/CCS (carbon capture and storage). We ought to get the biocarbon from fire protecting the forests, quick growing biomass crops that can remove carbon from the atmosphere on short timescales and every iota of carbonaceous waste, manure, sewage sludge, trash, and even old landfills leaking methane that we can scrape up and pyrolyze.

    Looking at the Carma database, some of these coal fired monster plants produce twenty to thirty million tons of CO2 per year. It’s starting to look like coal fired power plants of this size are more dangerous than nuclear weapons – which at least cannot credibly destroy the biosphere. Leaving them in private hands, churning out billions of tons of carbon per year, is insane, I think.

    The President ought to declare a state of national emergency and seize these plants. Congress should pass a law declaring these plants a public hazard, and seize them. Our Justice Department should prosecute the owners of these plants in a massive civil suit, as was done against the tobacco companies a few years ago, and use the civil damages against these corporations and their rich stockholders to seize the coal plants.

    Then, we need to take the worst problem – coal fired power plants – and convert them into the best solution – carbon negative power plants.

    Coupled with stabilization wedges, massive replanting and reforestation efforts, and returning the ash to the soil, carbon negative power schemes could turn the corner on this runaway warming problem, IMO.

    Act now, because this offer will not be repeated. Positive feedback effects are turning carbon sinks into carbon sources. Supplies are limited. The window of opportunity is closing.

  19. Pangolin says:

    If carbon capture and storage was affordable and effective there would be no reason to burn biomass in coal plants. Burning biomass in a coal plant eliminates the potential to use the carbon in the biomass as a solid carbon capture. Sequestering carbon as a solid is easier by orders of magnitude than trying to contain the comparable carbon mass as CO2.

  20. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Pangolin-

    Unfortunately, sequestration as solid carbon asks people to bury a potentially valuable fuel. Conversion of carbon to CO2 is exothermic, unfortunately.

    On the other hand, conversion of CO2 to carbonate is also exothermic, although very slow at the present time.

    Unfortunately, only something like 12 percent of calcium carbonate is carbon, so you either have to shift massive amounts of rock, or form carbonates in place.

    Carbon capture can be done essentially free by oxyfuel combustion, which can be run a higher Carnot efficiencies than combustion in air. Carbon storage can be done by deep injection, until we figure out how to store carbon as a carbonate economically.