Biomass-based energy, long ignored in North America, is finding its place in today’s energy business.
As fossil oil prices broke through $60 per barrel and now regularly see prices at $100, scarcity concerns and the expectation of prolonged higher prices create just the environment necessary for bioenergy projects to flourish. Those projects that use existing waste streams with low or negative feedstock prices, particularly in the municipal sector, are being developed in many major cities and innovative small and medium-sized municipalities. Add to this the abundance of woody biomass based community and district energy projects in planning and deployment stages, and we can see that bioenergy is on the move.
Only a few years ago, bioenergy meant forest sector cogeneration or pellet production. Today the pellet industry is experiencing increased demand from Europe, driven by legislation to reduce greenhouse gases at coal-fired facilities.
In North America, with the Obama administration recently announcing a set of proposed rules designed to target greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, the United States will see a similar move to replace existing coal-fired plants with cleaner fuels. Plans in North America to construct close to 150 coal-fired plants worth an investment of $240 billion have been abandoned, cancelled or postponed in the last four years.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson got it right when she said, “Today we’re taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy.” Environment Canada is also working on regulations to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants here in Canada.
New markets are on the horizon with Korea leading the pack with the implementation of the 2012 2% Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) increasing to 10% by 2020. With heavy reliance on coal in Korea, B.C. biomass stands ready to provide a clean, sustainably sourced solution.
Second-generation solid fuels are also moving up the commercialization chain. Torrefied pellets, bio-char, bio-coal and black pellets are promising renewable fuel sources that offer increased energy density, hydrophobic properties, and ease and reduced cost of fuel handling, improving logistics and economics for fuel delivery to overseas markets. British Columbia’s carbon tax, combined with the development of lower-cost torrefied solid fuels, means that the economics of bioenergy right at home in British Columbia makes sense. With local and export markets calling, a handful of projects are moving closer to breaking ground.
Increased attention is being paid to identifying the best use for our biomass, including industrial and academic research on understanding the best conversion technologies for our feedstock. British Columbia continues to be a leader in evaluating cellulosic ethanol, leveraging synthetic biogas or syngas for transportation fuels, or leveraging off our existing natural gas infrastructure for injection to the gas pipeline. Technology suppliers and major industrial companies are also working together to identify the highest value application for our feedstock.
Across Canada, we are seeing increased collaboration among our world-class researchers and between and among industry and academia. On an international collaborative basis, British Columbia is leading the way to break open new markets in Asia, with University of British Columbia and BC Bioenergy Network building bridges with research interests in Korea. Stay tuned.
Bioenergy offers solutions for today and opportunities for tomorrow. We need new, renewable, affordable sources of energy and we need to work across industry, academia, NGOs and government to achieve this vision.
Michael Wheedon is the executive director of BC Bioenergy Network, an industry-led initiative for deploying near-term bioenergy technologies and supporting mission-driven research to build a world-class bioenergy capability in British Columbia.