A recent fire at Britain’s largest biomass power plant brought an audible groan from everyone in the biomass industry.
The pellet storage area at the RWE plant in Tilbury, U.K., burned for hours, with speculation that the weight of the water used to douse the flames would become a hazard in its own right. Now it looks like much of the plant will be out of commission until July, a four-month shutdown that will undoubtedly affect grid reliability.
Anti-biomass groups will now have another example as to why biomass burning is a bad idea, local consumers will have a scapegoat if blackouts ensue and other large utilities have another reason to drag their feet in adopting co-firing strategies.
It’s not fair that biomass, or specifically wood pellets, are being measured against an unfair fuel standard – perfection. What they should be measured against is the alternative fuel supply, which in this case is coal.
Coal hardly has an unblemished record on the safety front. From mining and processing to storage and combustion, coal needs to be handled very carefully. More to the point, the very RWE plant that is now shuttered suffered a major coal fire just three years ago. It was not seen as a deathblow to coal-fired plants elsewhere, nor were consumers or environmentalists calling for an end to coal combustion.
It is an uneven playing field that those in the biomass sector are sadly getting used to, whether it is the demands of immediate carbon neutrality or emission comparisons that contrast apples and oranges.
On the latter point, this issue includes a study examining some of the assumptions on which the controversial but now famous Manomet study was based. Among other things, the study claimed that CO2 emissions from biomass combustion were higher than those from burning coal, and used that as a basis to portray biomass combustion in a negative light.
FutureMetrics, a company out of Maine, took a closer look, making sure that things like moisture content and the entire harvesting cycle were factored in. FutureMetrics found (as anyone with a fireplace can tell you) that wet biomass or coal creates more CO2 than properly seasoned biomass. In fact, wood pellets, which are made from dried wood fibre, emit fewer emissions than coal, making them a solid choice for co-firing.
This presents the biomass sector with several challenges.
First, where emissions are a factor, we need to be sure we are doing our best to properly prepare the fuel for clean combustion. Second, we need to make sure power consumers are comparing apples to apples in public discussions, whether around renewability, sustainability, safety or emissions. Third, we want to be compared to a viable alternative, not Utopia.
If we’re replacing coal, oil, or gas, how do we rate in those circumstances against those alternatives in all of the above four categories?
In most cases, we’ll rate well.