04 Sep 2013

With urbanisation accelerating across the world, the global demand for energy is set to double by 2035.  Given the dwindling supply of fossil fuels, those countries which are abundant in renewable energy sources are finding themselves in a privileged position – particularly those rich with wind, hydro, or solar energy.  However, from being an often overlooked energy resource, biomass may just become the game changer for some countries.

In countries such as Poland, for example, biomass co-firing has emerged as one of the largest sources of renewable power.  As part of their green energy initiatives, several local utilities – including PGE, Tauron and Enea – have upgraded their coal-fired installations to allow for burning biomass as well as coal.

Under its new three-pack energy law, Poland has just concluded works on a new law on renewable energy sources, which covers electricity, gas and renewables. Legislators debated whether to increase the share of renewable energy in the power generation mix, which will drive reforms to the green certificates system, whilst at the same time limiting subsidies for biomass co-firing generators, as well as other renewables such as wind or photovoltaics.

Green certificates – tradeable documents proving that certain electricity is generated using renewable energy sources – are part of Poland’s scheme to support the renewable energy market. Green certificate trading enables the industry players to generate additional profit from the production of renewable energy. Changes to this system would help to avoid last year’s market crash where prices plunged almost 70 per cent, caused by the oversupply of green certificates.

This reform could also help lift the share of the energy mix using renewable sources to 15 per cent in 2020 to meet the European Union (EU) targets. This target has been scaled back from the initial target of 20 per cent, which was  an ambitious target for a country heavily dependent on coal.

“The new law seeks to adjust Poland’s renewables support mechanism to the changing conditions of the renewable energy market,” Piotr Czopek, renewable energy specialist at the Polish Ministry of Economy told Eco-Business.

Poland presented its draft bill on renewable energy support in mid-August. The main legislation is expected to come into force by the end of the year, or at the latest by June next year.

According to the Ministry, the current green certificates framework – which provides the same level of support for all technologies using alternative energy sources – has been one of the causes of excessive development of technologies which offer very little innovation

Specifically, this equal treatment of different technologies has led to a rapid growth of biomass co-firing in coal power plants. Whilst, 50 per cent of current Polish electricity from renewable energies is produced from biomass, almost a third comes from co-firing biomass in coal-fired power plants.

However, this method of generating power has come under criticism by environmentalists who say that most co-firing coal power plants do not use the emerging waste heat – about 75 per cent of the electricity from biomass is produced without using it.

Waste heat is a by-product of energy conversion processes, mostly discarded in cooling towers, ponds, the atmosphere, or discharged into the sewer. Recovering value from waste heat can be another major opportunity to lower energy costs, increase the productivity, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, Polish bioenergy experts have noted that Poland has been importing a huge amount of biomass in the past five years, when there is a vast amount of idle land, and waste agricultural streams which could be used for growing country’s own feedstock.

They also state that the activities of large energy companies, which use biomass in order to receive compensation in the form of green certificates, have contributed to a considerable wastage of this resource. Nearly 30 per cent of the available biomass from agricultural waste weighing millions of tonnes is used for co firing, which is a highly inefficient use of the fuel. With more efficient technology and feedstock distribution, it is estimated that around 170,000 households could be heated with the same amount of biomass.

Benefits and challenges of biomass co-firing

Co-firing can be a cost-effective and relatively swift means of adding a renewable energy component, converting biomass to electricity by adding biomass as a partial substitute fuel in high-efficiency coal boilers.

Provided the biomass is sourced sustainably, co-firing reduces emissions of carbon dioxide. Biomass also contains significantly less sulfur than most coal. This means that co-firing will reduce emissions of sulfurous gases such as sulfur dioxide that will then reduce acid rain.”

Krzysztof Dragon, DP CleanTech

“It incorporates environmental, socio-economic and strategy advantages”, says Krzysztof Dragon, vice president of clean energy solutions provider DP CleanTech.

“For example, provided the biomass is sourced sustainably, co-firing reduces emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that can contribute to the global warming effect. Biomass also contains significantly less sulfur than most coal. This means that co-firing will reduce emissions of sulfurous gases such as sulfur dioxide that will then reduce acid rain.”

Co-firing facilities are also less sensitive to seasonality in biomass fuel production as well as biomass availability and price. Power stations allows for greater flexibility in terms of the origin of the fuels, (for example from forestry, agriculture or municipal waste), as well as the ratio of each biomass fuel in the power mix.  This is because it does not affect the fossil fuel load, which can still operate at 100 per cent.

For many European countries, the promotion of co-firing is a key initial step for the development of sustainable biomass markets as well as for the creation of expertise on biomass handling and combustion.

In Poland, biomass projects will continue to be supported through 2017, but the increasing number of projects has led to a large price hike for popular biomass feedstocks. Acting on such environmental and economic concerns, the government is cutting subsidies for biomass co-firing and the issuance of green certificates for co-incinerators.

In response, the industry has come up with innovations that could boost the country’s biomass sector – without subsidies.  One such solution is a new, localized biomass model conceptualized by DP CleanTech and the Polish Energy Partners.

Currently under development, this optimized 30MW and 40MW straw-fired model will be more sustainable and energy-efficient. It will process most types of organic, carbon-containing feedstock without causing air pollution, greenhouse gases (GHG) and environmental harm.

“It allows the  co-firing of agricultural and forestry biomass, where agricultural waste can make up to 100 per cent of the power mix; and wood chips can constitute up to 80 per cent”, explained Piotr Maciołek, Industrial Energy Outsourcing Director, Polish Energy Partners. “This gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of location and availability of resources. In the future, we would like to build more power plants based on this model.”

The new technology will significantly reduce the fuel consumption of biomass power plants, which leads to increased energy savings, improved cash flow and better return on investment.

The project also features a special boiler design that will also minimize nitrogen oxide emissions, and an innovative feeding system that will handle both square and round bales.

The new technology will significantly reduce the fuel consumption of biomass power plants, which leads to increased energy savings, improved cash flow and better return on investment.

During the next two years, DP CleanTech will exclusively engineer, manufacture and commission the combustion boiler, fuel feeding and air system. The complete straw-fired power plant will be delivered to PEP in Winsko, in South West Poland.

“The design is done, the location confirmed and we have all the approvals for construction. We are now waiting for the government’s decision regarding the new renewables bill. Without it, we won’t know all the economic parameters that we need in order proceed with works on the power plant,” said Mr Maciołek.

Asia’s growing potential

There is also significant potential for this biomass model in Asia, say private sector experts and academics.

There is a lot of interest in biomass around the region but the main challenge is to make the business model work properly

Dr Tong Yen Wah, National University of Singapore 

South East Asia has a huge need for distributed power generation and is also home to one third of the world’s usable biomass supply.  However many countries still generate power through coal and expensive diesel fuel. Despite having vast waste streams  such as rice husk, palm oil waste and wood chips, as well as strong government incentives for dedicated biomass plants around the 10MW range, they lack the infrastructure and resources to efficiently collect and transport biomass fuel.

Perhaps by encouraging biomass co-firing as a cost effective first step  for governments and utilities to meet renewables targets, the biomass industry will begin to better utilize waste streams and build a reliable fuel collection framework. With a more efficient fuel collection framework, the risk of disruption of fuel availability for small localized biomass power plants around the 10MW range is significantly reduced.

Sales Manager at DP CleanTech, Jerome Le-Borgne said: “The incentives for dedicated 10MW plants in countries like Thailand and Philippines are very attractive and allow for fantastic profitability, because it is seen as a great solution for managing waste and providing distributed base load power to rural communities.  However the number one challenge we are faced with is ‘bankability’ resulting from unpredictable fuel supplies”

According to Dr Tong Yen Wah, Assistant Professior at the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, National University of Singapore (NUS), while biomass co-firing is the dominating technology in countries such as Korea and Japan, it is less developed in other Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which are rich in biomass feedstock.

Dr Tong heads a few teams of researchers at NUS who are looking at different models to convert and transport biomass. “The models that we are currently exploring are also strongly focused on the logistics: either collecting the biomass or implementing a transportable technology to convert biomass into energy. We need to find a cost-efficient solution to the many logistical issues.”

“There is a lot of interest in biomass around the region but the main challenge is to make the business model work properly,” he said.

Clearly, the opportunities are there for biomass to become a much bigger contributor to the renewable energy sector in many countries, but its development will depend on several factors. Building certainty into fuel pricing and fuel supplies can be realised through a combination of government support, market reform, and innovation in logistics processes.

However, the efficiency and flexibility of the technology to move along the development curve from co firing to stand alone biomass power plants is an equally critical factor in the development of the industry as a whole