Market research on the biomass power generation market by a market research firm suggests that not only will biomass rapidly expand as a power source by 2022; a significant portion of the growth will come in the form of co-firing and CHP projects.
The report suggests that the dominant form of biomass production – combustion – has reached maturity and will gradually be replaced over the next half-decade by co-firing and CHP projects.
A Primer on CHP
CHP, or combined heat and power, projects feature a combination of electricity and heat from waste. During this process, the biomass fuel is primarily used to generate electricity. But, waste heat – as generated by virtually any thermal energy source – is captured and utilized as thermal energy.
This waste can come in the form of solid fuels or biogases, which can be combusted in a similar way to natural gas in a CHP biomass system.
CHP offers electrical generation while also providing for heating, cooling, or thermal applications. The process offers several benefits, including:
- Less waste
- Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
- Lower energy costs
- Better economic development for a local area
- Reduced losses in distribution and transmission
Indeed, these benefits are reasons why the industry is moving away from combustion-only biomass projects and toward CHP projects that simultaneously produce electricity and heat. This trend has been observed in virtually every area that already sees significant biomass utilization, and could be the main path moving forward for areas that want to gradually incorporate more biomass production for their infrastructure.
Co-Firing Growing in Popularity
Not every utility is ready or able to adopt biomass as a main source of primary electricity/heat generation. Those that are willing or able to take steps forward have largely turned to co-firing as a way to incorporate biomass and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Co-firing is a process by which biomass is used as a partial replacement for conventional fossil fuel, namely coal. Biomass is added to high-efficiency coal boilers to cut down on emissions and improve fuel efficiency.
This trend began in the 1990s, but didn’t begin to grow significantly until the mid to late-2000s. Given the heightened emphasis the EPA and federal government have placed on cutting emissions under the Obama administration, more utilities will adopt co-firing as a viable way to reduce emissions while still providing energy at an acceptable rate and cost.
Additionally, some plants have reported cost savings as a direct result of co-firing. The Colbert plant, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, estimates that it saves $1.5 million per year in fuel costs thanks to biomass co-firing.
So far, co-firing is mainly limited to the North, the Northeast, and the South. There are currently six biomass co-firing plants in commercial operation, with an additional nine plants where demonstrations have been conducted and eight more where tests are currently planned.
Adapting Emerging Technologies
Adapting current plants to co-fire biomass or incorporate CHP as a main method of producing electricity and heat will be the primary way facilities make use of biomass moving forward. In the long-term, new, biomass-only plants will be constructed, as is the case with several projects being planned or initiated overseas in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.
This process may involve little retrofitting, as conventional boilers only require modifications to storage, fuel-handling systems, and the burner. Plants will have to evaluate their needs and cost on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with a biomass systems expert that is experienced in retrofitting facilities and adapting production elements to accommodate the fuel.