An earlier post discussed the issue of recovering CO2 from forest biomass energy generation by inserting an algal synthesis process to capture CO2. The recent conference provides a “lay of the land” and specifically mentions forest residues. Here’s an excerpt of a report from Biomass Digest:
In California, the Pacific West Biomass Conference opened with the bright promise of the State’s enormous biomass resources. However, several speakers in the morning’s plenary sessions invoked major statutory and regulatory barriers to fulfilling this promise. There are conflicting definitions of biomass and what qualifies as a legitimate source or conversion process. The conflicts run across the standards for earning carbon credits and renewable energy credits, attaining the Renewables Portfolio Standard (for utilities), meeting AB32 carbon reduction goals, and meeting California Integrated Waste Management Board landfill diversion goals. These issues reach beyond California since the State’s standards strongly affect those of many other States.
For instance, the California Renewables Portfolio standards do not accept organic municipal solid waste as a source for renewable energy (except for landfill methane capture and gasification of MSW). Green-e, the favored third party certifier for both RECs and carbon credits, denies greenhouse gas reduction credits to energy from solid and liquid biomass from nearly all sources.
Jim Stewart, Chairman of the California Bioenergy Producers Association described Assembly Bill 222, drafted five years ago to rationalize definitions, sources, and technologies. This bill has been approved in the Assembly but the Senate Environmental Committee is sitting on it, in response to strong pressure from environmental organizations. Several speakers emphasized the need to work with the environmentalists to help them understand the relative impacts and benefits of biomass energy compared with fossil energy. (No representative from the enviro organizations were on the agenda.)
Reliable access to biomass feedstocks was a recurring theme. Companies are researching new species, such as Sustainable Oils’ Camilina sativa and Viaspace’s Giant King Grass project in a tropical region of China. <link to earlier Digest stories> Some companies are focusing on “waste” streams or residues, others on scanning for new strains and enhancing dedicated energy crops through traditional plant breeding or genetic engineering.
One of the most innovative approaches to feedstocks was Dallas Hank’s baseline assessment of idle public lands, such as freeway frontage, railroad and airport land, and military bases. This Utah State University Extension researcher estimates that over twenty million acres of US public land could be farmed for dedicated biomass crops. His economic analysis shows the overall costs of production would be a small fraction of growing bioenergy crops on private land. (See www.freewaystofuel.org for Hank’s powerpoint and information on the Freeways to Fuel Alliance.)
Maintaining viability of algae companies
In the Biorefinery track algae companies had strong representation. Kent Bioenergy, Aurora Biofuels, Genifuel Corporation and Bioalgene presented their approaches. One manager responded to the question “When do you think your company will be producing cost competitive biodeisel.” “I hope its within my lifetime,” was his modest response. Others projected three to five years to commercial application.
However, the algae developers emphasized business models based on revenues from sequestering carbon and processing other pollutants, on the input side. On the output side they are seeking to create multiple co-products to achieve ROI as biodiesel production evolves to cost competitive status.
For instance, Kent Bioenergy uses effluent from a waste water treatment plant on the Salton Sea and landfill leachate (SE California) as nutrient rich media for growing microalgae. Bioalgene has a demonstration site in Boardman OR that captures CO2 from a coal fired power plant to speed growth. Genifuel gasifies nuisance wet algae to produce methane, as well as plants like water hyacinth that clog waterways. This site’s coproducts include sterile water and organic fertilizer. <http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/blog2/2009/05/08/genifuel-licenses-new-method-for-converting-algae-to-natural-gas-for-power-gen> Other companies mentioned animal feed, fertilizer, biopolymers, and feedstock to anaerobic digesters as coproducts.
This systems business model of diversifying input and output revenue streams enables these algae companies to remain viable while evolving a commercially competitive biofuel. Cellulosic ethanol producers described similar strategies.
Bryan Yeh of SAIC presented the DARPA sponsored study of algae companies and recommendations for successful algae business development. He says the report will likely not be released for another 6 months.
One of the fully subscribed tracks was the late addition — Biomass Power Project Development & Finance. These four sessions offered very informed commentary by investors and a great deal of time for questions and discussion. The investors” case reports demonstrated the active role they play in supporting their companies’ project teams in evolving sustainable business models that mitigate risks for both equity and debt investors.
Learning from one another
Conference participants commented on the great value of cross-pollination between different technologies at an event like this. One company learns from another’s solutions to basic strategic issues of feedstock supply, sustainable business models, integration of technologies, or coproducts. The sharing from presentations was greatly amplified by discussions in the breaks, lunches and late-afternoon receptions. Although BBI tightly scheduled the formal presentations, it was generous in time for breaks, lunch, and late afternoon receptions.
Diversity of the biomass industry cluster
Participants also commented on how the diverse sponsors and exhibitors were a good cross section of the biomass cluster. These included service and product suppliers (law firms, bioengineering companies), manufacturers of equipment for processing feedstocks (grinders, shredders, pellet or briquette compressors), construction engineering firms, the firms harvesting ag and forest residues, and some of the biomass conversion companies. Many firms in the supply chain have expanded from their traditional product lines to embrace bioenergy and biomaterials. In some cases they become project partners rather than vendors.