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Biomass: Fuel for the world?


September 1, 2010
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Using biomass as a fuel, on a large scale, globally, means harvesting methods must by re-assessed, moisture content must be considered, supply chains must evolve, and certification and standards need …

Using biomass as a fuel, on a large scale, globally, means harvesting methods must by re-assessed, moisture content must be considered, supply chains must evolve, and certification and standards need to be developed.

As well, to justify using biomass as a fuel, the multiple benefits concept is being put forward, a scenario in which more than just environmental sustain- ability of the fuel is considered.

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All of these aspects of the bioen- ergy movement were on the agenda at the World Bioenergy conference in Jnkping, Sweden in May 2010.

What better location than Sweden for this global gathering? Last year, due in large part to the country’s carbon tax, biomass (of various types) outpaced oil as an energy source in Sweden. In 2009, bio- energy accounted for 31.7% of the final energy use in Sweden, compared with oil at 30.8%.

Similarly, the use of biomass is increasing across Europe. Consultants with Pyry predict demand for woody biomass will outstrip domestic supply in Europe as governments strive to meet the EU’s renewable energy targets by 2020.

While this demand is prompting a growing trade in pellets, especially between Europe and North America, it is also spurring development of higher value products, such as biofuels. By Cindy Macdonald, editor

The transformation from waste wood to biofuel has begun

At the World Bioenergy conference, Clas Engstrom of Processum described the ongoing conversion of the Domsjo industrial site in Sweden to a biorefinery. Domsjo is organized as a cluster, or a cen- tre of excellence, he explains. There’s an attempt to coordinate between different companies in an open arena.

The primary product of this biorefin- ery is pure cellulose for the production of viscose and rayon, from a sulphite pulping process. In addition, the Domsjo compa- nies have been producing ethanol, deriva- tives, lignosulphonate (for the concrete sector), biogas (from the anaerobic waste treatment facility), energy, plus steam and electricity (for district heating).

A demonstration facility is being built at the site that will use the black liquor to produce syngas that will be further pro- cessed to methanol and bioDME using Chemrec’s process.

Jochen Vogels of Choren Industries GmbH reported on his company’s progress with its beta biomass-to-liquid (BTL) facil- ity in Frieburg, Germany. Construction work on the facility was completed mid- 2009, and syngas production using Cho- ren’s Carbo V gasifier began in December ’09. The next phase of production, using Fischer Tropsch synthesis is expected to be started-up in the third quarter of this year.

According to Vogels, Choren’s beta plant will demonstrate technical viability of BTL production by end of 2010, and the first commercial scale BTL produc- tion plant is scheduled to be in operation around 2015.

He also notes that two BTL projects using Carbo-V technology are “in the pipeline” for Canada.

Wood pellets in demand

Of more immediate interest is the global availability of biomass in light of the rapidly growing market for wood pellets. “North America and Russia have the potential to become major biomass supply regions,” reports Dr. Hubert Rder, of Pyry Management Consulting. Europe, he notes, doesn’t have enough domestic supply to meet its anticipated need. “Even if both the theoretical harvest and residue potential were fully utilized, the current EU target for renewable energy, maintain- ing the current share of woodbased bio- mass within the renewable energy sources, is impossible to achieve on a sustainable basis from the EU forest resources.”

Rder estimates that the current cost of energy from biomass is 15-30 Euros per MWh.

He is confident that the international biomass trade will grow, and says the development of large bioenergy markets depends on key political decisions, for example, in the U.S., Canada and China.

“Traditional forest industry players are in a strong position to participate in bio- energy,” he concludes.

Canada has significant harvesting poten- tial right now, but that diminishes in the longer term, in Rder’s assessment. Latin America, with its fast-growing plantations, will have supply available in the future.

“Fast growing plantations are a power- ful tool to increase global wood availabil- ity,” he notes.

In the global pellet trade, the largest volume currentlly is moving from Canada to Europe. New capacity is planned for both Russia and the southeast U.S.

Another Pyry consultant, Jan Win- tzell, presented data on global wood pellet production for 2008. Global production was 11.7 million tonnes. North America contributed 2.9 million tonnes, Russia and China together produced less than one million tonnes, and the balance is attrib- uted to Europe. Europe also accounts for 80% of global pellet consumption.

Wintzell notes that there is a strong and increasing demand for wood pellets from the coal industry, which is turning to co-firing coal and biomass as a way to reach CO2 reduction targets.

Immature pellet industry faces challenges

Security of supply and traceability are becoming issues as the global trade in biomass expands. In the typical biomass supply chain, explains Rder, buying the forest or the plantation provides the high- est security of supply.

Adrian Mason of Inspectorate Inter- national presented a case history of a large European biomass buyer in the power sec- tor that wanted to verify to quality, quantity and sustainability of its purchased biomass, on a cargo-by-cargo basis. Mason explains that the carbon and sustainability data can be used to calculate or verify GHG savings, land use change, and conformance with regulations. An audit can also provide the buyer with information concerning labor conditions within the supply chain and enhance confidence in the supply chain.

An interesting point about biomass as a fuel was made by Ross Harding of Energy Launch Partners: Moisture is not our friend.

“Some of the most expensive water in the world is in biomass,” he explains. “The last place you want to remove that moisture is in the boiler.”

Harding says few people have analyzed the cost of moisture in biomass. In pulp and paper processes, moisture in the raw material is not such a problem. “But when you switch from using biomass for fibre, to using it for energy, you suddenly get a very different view.”

Moisture content in the biomass var- ies, and that is the crux of the problem. According to Harding, many biomass- consuming processes are run below opti- mum because companies don’t monitor the quality and moisture content of the feed stock. Variations in moisture content lead to variations in the process.

In the production of ethanol, for example, biomass is an input in a sophis- ticated, very high capital cost process.

He suggests that better sampling methods and improved measurement of moisture content are necessary, as well as an awareness along the supply chain that consistent moisture content is desirable.

Bioenergy is not just about climate change

“Bioenergy has great potential,” says Pro- fessor Thomas B. Johansson, but pos- sible complications are its apparent con- flicts with biodiversity goals, competition for land use, and the food-as-fuel issue. “There are many combinations that could achieve [energy] sustainability, it depends very strongly on government policies.”

Johansson is a professor at Lund Uni- versity in Sweden, and co-chair of the Global Energy Assessement, an initiative of IIASA.

He suggests a multiple benefits con- cept — achieving economic development and poverty alleviation while mitigating climate change. To assess costs only in terms of cost/tonne of CO2 avoided is misleading, he states. We should value all benefits, such as jobs, growth, security, health, and the local environment.

Using woody biomass as a renewable fuel clearly has short-term appeal for Europe, which is poised to consume a significant amount i
n the next decade. For the pulp and paper sector to benefit, the challenge will be to move the bioen- ergy sector beyond burning biomass to produce heat and electricity into proj- ects more along the lines of Domsjo’s biorefinery and Choren’s biomass-to- liquid facility.

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