People who keep biomass energy facilities on-line are a pretty hardworking lot. Shift work is never easy, especially during outages – even when they are scheduled ones. Any biomass power generation plant still operating today is likely to be staffed “lean.” O&M teams and operators are under constant pressure to “make do” with minimal replacement of worn equipment. Deferred maintenance investment is especially problematic in older stations developed during the late 1980s under the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA). Managers are pushed to cut costs further or risk facility mothballing, at least until natural gas prices increase and biomass is seen as more competitive.
Biomass power professionals have an important role to play in building public respect for their work and industry contributions to national security. The public does not realize how much biomass energy complements solar and wind systems where those sources are inappropriate. That can mean economic growth and quality jobs for the next generation, but those opportunities depend on the public’s – and the industry’s – awareness and support.
Future opportunities explained
Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that space heating, service hot water and cooling of buildings combined consume more than 45 percent of the oil, propane and natural gas purchased in America. Elected officials and news reports seem to neglect the buildings sector, even though our safety and comfort depend on providing them with affordable heat and cooling.
The Energy Security and Independence Act (EISA – 2007) and other rules now require building and energy system designers (HVAC engineers) to cut fossil fuel use and carbon emissions from buildings. New and renovated federal structures must lower fossil fuel use by 80 percent (from 2003 levels) by 2020, with all new federal buildings carbon-neutral by 2030.
The goal is sometimes described as Net-Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB). Combining conservation and efficiency measures with renewable sources can enable a building to operate with energy that is sustainably available within the property footprint or nearby environment. The Department of Energy and its partners in Commercial Building Energy Alliances (CBEA) have considered solar, wind and geothermal technologies. Even with efficient controls and envelope conservation, they stated during the 2011CBEA Supplier Summit that those targets will be difficult when renovating existing buildings, especially those more than 4 stories tall. If biomass systems can supply that heat and cooling, we will be solving some of America’s most important energy problems faster, with greater economic and environmental return, in more places than any other renewable or fossil source.
Wood combustion companies can work harder to enter this market area, starting to capture opportunity by helping solve the NZEB problem. Increasing demand will expand use of bio-thermal technologies into thousands of facilities, lowering cost of energy and creating jobs in clean energy and natural resource conservation. An example of that progress is Austria, smaller and with a lower percentage of forest land than Pennsylvania or North Carolina, where more than 1,000 district thermal systems were built in the last 30 years. To show the security value, Russia recently threatened curtailment of natural gas shipments to western Europe for the third time in 6 years.
Many Austrian cities, like Güssing, are at far less risk than in the past because they included wood thermal applications with other renewable energy strategies.
Cellulosic ethanol, or new electric power
Fuel/feedstock delivery to large capacity plants carries a freight expense burden that is nearly insurmountable – transport is often more than half the total delivered cost, one that increases whenever oil prices rise. Even though wood, grass and other cellulosic agricultural materials are renewable, their growth occurs across wide areas. Getting enough takes long-haul trucking. Even if the process becomes inexpensive, the dollars people want to pay is too low to cover the cost for raw material, processing and distribution with profits. End-user prices are held down by contract, regulation or competition, a fact likely to limit financial viability of high capacity facilities.