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Monday, May 08, 2006

In face of energy crisis, biomass comes out as clear winner

In these times of energy insecurity, it is interesting to see how large organisations analyse their future energy needs and decide which energy portfolio to use. Let's take a look at how an American university, Virginia Tech, goes through this process. There is little doubt that Tech needs additional electricity generation — approximately thirty megawatts — to respond to rising demand. However, controversy exists over which type of power plant to build. Currently, the administration is considering four options: plants that use coal, natural gas, oil and biomass. Benjamin K. Sovacool explains why biomass should be the clear winner.

The problems of coal are well documented and extend beyond the significant carbon dioxide emitted from coal-fired power plants. Even clean coal facilities produce an immense amount of sludge and release sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, mercury and ozone into the atmosphere. A 1996 study undertaken by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that coal-fired power plants are directly responsible for killing 30,000 Americans every year. The Clean Air Task Force notes that most of this pollution is concentrated close to where coal is combusted. In other words, the more coal burnt near Tech, the more its residents are incrementally poisoned.

Moreover, the mountaintop and strip-mining of coal presents numerous hazards for miners and have been proven to contaminate freshwater ecosystems and ruin habitats. And coal is becoming an increasingly expensive fuel. During most of the 1990s, Tech paid around $19 per ton. Last year that cost was $37.50, and it is expected to approach $65 for the 2005-2006 academic year.

Natural gas and oil present arguably cleaner alternatives, but are subject to frequent price spikes and interruptions. The Energy Information Administration documented price swings of over $50 per GJ for natural gas during March of 2005. Gray Davis, the former governor of California, recently commented that natural gas prices played a significant role in the 2001-2002 California Electricity Crisis. In addition, increasing natural gas demand requires the construction of new pipelines and expensive regasification facilities, and only deepens American dependence on foreign countries that supply natural gas such as Algeria, Brunei, Indonesia, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar and Trinidad and Tobago. Oil perpetuates the same type of dependence (with a different list of countries), and is becoming much more expensive as prices pass $50 per barrel.

Among these choices, the construction of a biomass facility is clearly the best option. Such a facility could use the abundant sources of woodchips, forest products, poultry waste, trash and agricultural residues available in the community. Moreover, such a facility could produce the needed 30 MW of electricity while recycling steam waste to produce heat and air conditioning. While a biomass facility would likely cost around $50 million to build and $3 million annually to operate, it would generate $2-4 million per year in steam and chilled water and produce electricity valued at about $4 million. Put simply: the facility would pay for itself in under nine years.

The comparative benefits from a biomass facility are numerous. First, unlike coal, which is imported from outside of the state, a Tech biomass facility would create jobs in Blacksburg. While the operational costs of a biomass facility are comparable to a coal plant, a biomass facility would require dozens of local workers for fuel processing and transportation – jobs that would not be created any other way. Some estimates suggest that such a facility could create over 100 local jobs in Blacksburg alone.

Unlike the combustion of coal, biomass produced electricity does not add to the inventory of global carbon dioxide because it does not release fossilized carbon into the atmosphere. Thus, even though combustion of biomass does release some carbon dioxide, it does not add to global warming. A 2003 Department of Energy report concluded that “biomass can significantly reduce emissions compared to a coal-only option.” Such a facility could also reduce electricity costs by charging tipping fees to pick up waste instead of having to pay for fuel. Since most farmers pay $35 per ton to remove their waste, tipping fees could constitute a significant financial benefit. Such a facility would also enable engineers to get hands-on experience working with waste-to-energy technology, programs that have greatly benefited Princeton University and the University of Florida.

It is important to note that biomass is not a panacea to the nation’s energy problems. Many regions are better suited for wind turbines, photovoltaic systems and small hydro facilities. Biomass combustion does release significant amounts of air pollution, and the effects of power plant construction and use of wastes and residues could harm various ecosystems. Yet a properly designed biomass plant with proper environmental assessment and scrubber and filter technology could overcome these problems.

Relying on coal, natural gas and oil power plants does nothing to increase local employment. Moreover, it impoverishes the environment and it subjects Tech to a costly dependence on out-of-state fuel. In contrast, a local biomass facility would cut electricity costs, reduce emissions and create jobs here in Blacksburg. From any angle, biomass is the clear winner. Before you go home for the summer, write to Tech administrators and tell them to choose biomass.

Benjamin K. Sovacool
Graduate Research Assistant, Department of Science & Technology Studies

Collegiate Times.

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