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Biomass Takes Big Step Forward with Huge Coal-to-Biomass Conversion

coal-to-biomass conversion

The biomass industry took a big step forward this year – although it wasn’t in the U.S., but Denmark.

As of the middle of December, Denmark’s largest coal-fired power plant has been fully converted to biomass.

Copenhagen’s Avedore CHP plant, owned by Dong Energy, provided heat and power to hundreds of thousands of households in the country’s capital city. Conversion to biomass began in 2015 in the plant’s Unit 1; the completion of this process means the entire plant can now be fueled by biomass. (The other unit, Unit 2, already has a newer boiler that can burn biomass in addition to natural gas and heavy fuel oil.)

The conversion not only gives Avedore one of the largest biomass boilers in the world; it also ensures that approximately 215,000 homes in the Greater Copenhagen area can be heated completely without gas or coal.

Additionally, the conversion will reduce CO2 emissions by roughly 500,000 metric tons per year, which is equivalent to the emissions produced by 255,000 vehicles.

Avedore’s conversion makes for the second power plant owned by Dong Energy to go through a coal-to-biomass conversion. The first was Studstrup, a mixed heat-and-power facility that provides energy to 225,000 residents in Aarhus. That particular conversion cost $193 million and was completed in November after two years of planning and work.

The biomass fuel used by Avedore and Studstrup comes in the form of wood pellets, which is largely the preferred fuel source for biomass plants throughout the world – although some plants are beginning to use landfill gas or biogas as a primary fuel source. Typically, though, it’s easier to convert a solid-fuel plant (like a coal plant) to another solid-fuel plant through wood biomass.

How Coal-to-Biomass Conversions Create a New Future for a Struggling Industry

The move from biomass to coal with these two power plants is no surprise, given how the coal industry has struggled over the past decade in the U.S. and Europe.

Part of the reason for coal’s decline involves coal becoming less competitive from a price standpoint with other main fuel sources, another reason involves coal’s status as the worst offender of all major fuel sources when it comes to emissions.

As reported by Forbes in 2013, biomass has created the potential to keep coal-fired plants from shuttering, as many have done in the U.S. since 2000. Biomass reduces emissions, which helps a major weakness of the industry, and advances in technology and infrastructure have made biomass more competitive.

One of the first mainstream coal-to-gas conversions came five years ago, when a major utility in Virginia began the process that would ultimately see four coal-fired plants to either co-firing plants or biomass-only plants that together generate 153 megawatts of power.

Other utilities have followed suit. While not all have completed their projects – many have been scrapped due to opposition from state legislatures friendly to coal – utilities have progressed to the point where installed biomass capacity grew from 7,000 megawatts in 2013 to over 16,000 megawatts at the end of 2015. This means that by the end of 2015, biomass provided 1.43 percent of total capacity in the U.S – ahead of solar at 1.2 percent and waste heat at 0.1 percent.

Biomass currently ranks only behind hydro (8.56 percent) and wind (6.31 percent).

As coal plant owners battle regulation and economics and struggle to keep their plants operating and their employees working, the possibilities created by coal-to-biomass conversion are tantalizing.

For now, though, Denmark and other countries in western Europe continue to lead the way when it comes to moving away from coal and toward biomass.