Coal is still here – 30% of all U.S. electricity produced in 2016 came from coal – but that hasn’t stopped utilities from finding other sources to provide a balanced mix.
One of those sources is biomass, and it makes sense for a variety of reasons – especially when the biomass comes in the form of wood waste.
Wood waste biomass is a viable option in part because it’s plentiful and cheap. In 2010, approximately 70.6 million tons of waste were generated by the manufacture of solid wood products, like furniture. Not all of this wood waste is recyclable or usable, but much of it is, and for this reason utilities have considered wood waste as a viable fuel source.
Wood waste biomass is not only plentiful; it helps clean up our nation’s landfills. Most of the waste currently goes into municipal landfills. The rest is typically recycled or used in biomass plants. There is already a growing biomass industry in the U.S. that has helped to reduce some of the flow of wood waste into landfills throughout the country, which is good for the environment.
Additionally, biomass is a carbon-neutral fuel source. Wood waste production doesn’t create a carbon debt because wood waste, by definition, isn’t used for much else, and most of it would decompose and emit carbon anyway if left alone. And in many parts of the country, including the South, large amounts of wood waste are generated as a result of forestry production and are left to rot – which is a waste of waste, so to speak.
As coal plants move deeper into the 21st century, they’ll have to solve the problem posed by tighter regulations and the rising competitiveness of natural gas, wind, and solar energy. Coal can supplement its production and help cut down on emissions by co-firing with biomass, which requires the design, manufacturing, and installation of boilers and fuel handling systems for biomass.
Plants across the country are already moving in this direction. And the American Coal Council recognizes that co-firing with biomass is a viable option for reducing emissions and helping coal stay competitive.
Each utility should conduct a feasibility study for their plants to determine if co-firing biomass – or outright converting to biomass – makes sense. If it does, then the next step is to make plans to transition, so that the utility can get ahead of future emissions regulations and compete against other fuel sources that will continue to challenge coal for supremacy.
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