Converting from coal to biomass has been a trend in the energy debate for several years. While other nations have progressed further along this path than the U.S. – Japan and the U.K. in particular have made considerable strides – potential for coal-to-biomass conversions in the U.S still exists.
There are several practical reasons why coal providers will want to switch to biomass either in part or entirely, whether they incorporate co-firing or completely retrofit their existing structure to handle biomass exclusively.
Biomass Results in Fewer Emissions
The EPA believes that biomass is a carbon-neutral resource that can be feasibly incorporated into state energy plans to reduce carbon emissions under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.
It’s proven that biomass helps providers lower carbon emissions for the simple fact that it has less of a carbon impact than coal. This makes sense, considering coal’s status as one of the worst offenders when it comes to carbon emissions in the industry.
In years past, this would not be a primary concern. However, with strict regulations in play and more to come – especially if Democrats maintain the executive branch after the November elections this year – controlling carbon emissions is a chief concern of power plant operators. Hence, many have considered biomass.
Biomass’s Cost is Competitive
Economics plays a role in determining the primary fuel source for a power plant.
Coal is widely available in the U.S., but so is biomass. And the average cost of biomass, while higher than conventional coal, compares favorably to the latest coal technologies. According to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2015, biomass had an average projected LCOE (levelized cost of electricity) of $101 per MWh, compared to $95 for conventional coal.
However, the cost of conventional coal rises as new technologies and methods designed to reduce carbon emissions develop. Experimental methods like integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) cost $115.70 to $144 per MWh.
Plus, the cost of biomass is consistently falling. As more coal-fired plants struggle to adjust to tighter regulations on emissions, biomass will become a more cost-effective method.
Additionally, in some areas of the country where biomass is plentiful and established, the cost of biomass fuel may actually be lower than coal.
Biomass Generates Base and Backup Power
Solar and wind are the biggest competitors to coal, but they are not reliable sources for generating base power, nor are they suitable for backup power to handle increased demand since they cannot be “ramped up” should the grid require more power.
Biomass can do both, however, just like coal. And since biomass has advantages over coal when it comes to emissions and regulations, it makes sense to use biomass to provide a source of consistent, reliable base power when a power plant is searching to augment its production.
On a side note, solar and wind are very capital-intensive projects to get off the ground and in operation. The costs to create a solar farm or wind farm are significantly greater than the costs required to create a biomass operation or to convert a coal-fired plant to a co-firing or exclusively-biomass plant.