Could Biomass and Coal Be Energy’s New Odd Couple?


Older generations fondly remember watching Felix Unger and Oscar Madison share a New York City apartment during the five-season run of “The Odd Couple” in the 1970s. Their continual fights based on their “opposites-don’t-attract” mentality were entertaining – but they also were predictive, if one imagines Felix as coal and Oscar as biomass.

Coal and biomass have been at odds in some respects for decades. Coal has had to compete with renewable energy, taking away market share over the past 40 years. Biomass is a part of that renewable energy push, and on first glance, it would seem that the slow but steady growth of biomass would be viewed as a menace by coal industry veterans.

However, biomass has the potential to be far more than a menace to the coal industry. Biomass actually could have the capability of helping to “save” coal under a coal-friendly Trump administration that campaigned around building up the industry and bringing back jobs.

The key lies in co-firing. Co-firing, as we’ve discussed previously, involves combining biomass fuel (in the form of wood pellets) with pulverized coal to supplement fuel for energy production at coal plants. Co-firing confers several advantages on a utility, including:

  • Potentially cheaper fuel
  • Lower carbon emissions
  • Higher reliability
  • Competitive capital costs
  • Increased flexibility for on-demand generation
  • Lower emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, and mercury

Given that coal plants still provide over half of all large-scale electricity generation in the U.S., and that pulverized coal technology powers 97 percent of all coal plants over 250 MW in the country, the potential benefits could be significant if the nation makes a commitment to pushing co-firing at the federal level.

If President Trump wants to bring energy jobs back to states that have been hit hard by difficulties in both the coal and forestry industries, pushing pro-co-firing policies is a great idea. Co-firing can spur job creation for coal-producing states (like Wyoming, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania) and states that are heavily invested in forestry. Co-firing can keep coal plants competitive and operational, and can generate long-term demand for coal even as renewable energy grows.

And, from a big-picture perspective, co-firing can create predictability and stability for coal plant owners that has been missing for the past 20 years with the advent of renewables and natural gas.

No one is clear on whether or not President Trump’s administration is considering making co-firing a pillar of its pro-coal policy moving forward. Doing so, however, could result in thousands of new jobs, a new avenue forward for coal, and a surge of growth for local and state economies that will ultimately benefit society as a whole.

Coal and biomass may appear to be energy’s latest odd couple on the surface, but beneath – just like with Felix and Oscar – they need each other more than they know.