June 21, 2007 | General

Renewable Energy Companies Continue Their Surge

BioCycle June 2007, Vol. 48, No. 6, p. 44
Firms make use of Renewable Portfolio Standards, farm-to-fuel investments and availability in lower-cost feedstocks to achieve better results.
Jerome Goldstein

THE FARM-TO-FUEL Investment Act was recently introduced by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Iowa’s Tom Harkin of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chair of the Senate Budget Committee. The act would encourage farmers to produce cellulosic energy crops and provide transition assistance for farmers to grow dedicated energy crops. Participating farmers would agree to adopt conservation practices for soil and water quality and would be given incentives to produce native perennial energy crops such as prairie grass mixtures because of their tremendous conservation benefits.
Meanwhile, voters in Washington State have passed the Clean Energy Initiative – a set of policies that move to energy independence while combating global warming. The law includes a renewable electricity standard that requires the state’s largest utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources such as bioenergy, wind and solar by 2020. By 2025, these policies could reduce annual warming emissions by 4.6 million metric tons. Washington is the 21st state to adopt a renewable electricity standard and the second to do so via ballot initiative. Colorado was first in 2004.
A Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires utilities to generate an increasing percentage of their electricity from renewable resources. U.S. Representative Tom Udall of New Mexico and others have introduced legislation to establish a national RPS of 20 percent by 2020. This legislation would generate such benefits as a 15 percent reduction in power plant emissions of carbon dioxide; $49 billion in consumer savings on natural gas and electricity bills; more than 350,000 new jobs; more than $16 billion in new farm income; and more than $72 billion in capital investments for renewable energy facilities in rural communities.
A $400,000 grant has been awarded to the Koochiching Economic Development Authority (KEDA) in International Falls, Minnesota through a bill signed by Governor Tim Pawlenty, to determine the feasibility of a plasma torch gasification facility that would process 35,000 tons per year of municipal solid waste. Paul Nevanen, Director of KEDA, says that his agency will provide fiscal management of the grant, with Coronal LLC , KEDA’s partner in the project, providing overall management. “We have identified at least six engineering firms that will be given an opportunity to respond to our RFP to be issued in June, to evaluate sites, feedstocks, emissions, financing, business models, and plasma torch technologies,” explains Nevanan. “Although Coronal has been working with Westinghouse’s plasma technology, as well as Siemens for process controls, there are a couple of other plasma technologies that will be reviewed. Our governor recently signed a bill to require energy utilities to get a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources, and the state is being very supportive of this project.”
Minneapolis-based Coronal proposed the $30 million plasma gasification project more than two years ago, and has since gained significant state and county support. A full-scale operating plant in Utashinai, Japan – being cited as an example for Minnesota – was commissioned in 2004, and employs the Westinghouse plasma technology, processing 200 tpd of MSW. It generates 7.9 MW of electricity, which is enough to power 7,000 households. Nevanen says that he and other county officials hope to tour a recently opened plasma gasification plant near Ottawa, Ontario during the feasibility study. A plasma torch consists of two copper electrodes with very high direct current passing between them, and an inert gas like nitrogen injected through the electrodes, ionizing the gas and generating a flame with temperatures of 20,000°F. The high temperature breaks down organic waste into its basic molecular components of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. In addition to tipping fees, potential revenue streams from the project include syngas that will be sold as fuel, steam for use by companies such as Boise Cascade’s paper mill in International Falls, electricity, and vitrified slag that can be used as road aggregate, or rock wool, an ingredient of acoustic paneling. The feasibility study should come up with several different designs for the project.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, Vermont makes big profits by selling individual servings of ground coffee in white cups that are filled by a hissing, clanking production line. Now it’s found a way to spend $150 to $200 to install an efficient blower to cool the laser and cut Green Mountain’s electric bill by $200 per laser, of which there are 40. The improvement was made with the coaxing of the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. which is under contract with the state to find energy savings. “Opportunities like this abound in the commercial and industrial sectors, requiring no new research or technology,” notes The New York Times. The easiest way to cut carbon emissions and air pollution is to focus more on efficiency, claim experts in renewable power.
In many states, utilities promote efficiency because they have relationships with their users, but in Vermont many utilities are too small to have efficiency programs. Vermont took the approach of hiring Vermont Energy Investment, doing business as Efficiency Vermont. In most places, the traditional ways of making energy still turn out to be easier to do than to save it, but the incentives for energy efficiency are growing.
“When we started talking in the 1990s about energy efficiencies vs. coal energy, we were talking four cents a kilowatt-hour for coal and four cents for energy efficiency,” says Neal Elliott of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. “Today we’re talking optimistically, without carbon taxes, 10 cents for coal. With carbon taxes, we may be talking 20 cents for coal. And energy efficiency is still four cents or less.”
New office and commercial towers are being touted as saving money and helping to save the planet. The U.S. Green Building Council has certified 741 buildings since the program was launched in 2000. The largest single category is commercial/office with 197; 400 more are classified as office. Two projects included in the Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings set the nation’s standards for sustainable design.
When completed this year, the Durst Organization and Bank of America’s 54-story Tower in Manhattan will be the world’s greenest high-rise office building. In Philadelphia, Liberty Property Trust’s Comcast Center will be the nation’s tallest LEED-certified building. The economics work out well also. Energy costs will be reduced by 15 percent per year.
The Bank of America Tower’s greenest energy-efficient features include a 5.4-megawatt cogeneration plant and a recycling system that captures rainwater and reuses it to supply traditional functions, like flushing toilets. Sustainable solutions also include waterless urinals and a pioneering filtered underfloor displacement ventilation system that improves air quality and provides floor-by-floor control of air, making heating and cooling more efficient.
Comments Douglas Durst, co-president of The Durst Organization: “It’s always easier to build exactly the way you did before. The greatest challenge is getting developers to work in different ways with different materials. It still takes a lot more thinking and time to build green, but that will change and, eventually, all buildings will be green.”
At a plant in Benson, Minnesota to begin full-scale production next month, some 750 tons of turkey litter will be turned into electricity at a $200 million power plant. According to Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski, the 55-megawatt Fibrominn LLC plant will be the first poultry litter-fired power plant in the U.S. using a combination of droppings, wood chips, seed hulls, shed feathers and spilled feed. The plant will consume about 40 percent of the turkey litter that Minnesota generates, turning about 500,000 tons per year into electricity. Fibrowatt LLC is planning projects in several other major poultry states like North Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland and Mississippi.
Turkey farmer Greg Langmo said that selling litter for fuel gives poultry growers a new way to add value. Most producers who contract with Fibrominn will get $3 to $5 per ton, and the litter will be removed all at once.
According to Terry Walmsley, environmental vice president for Fibrominn, the company is working with the poultry industry to meet their needs. “Our goal is to design a flexible process that can meet demands and provide a valuable service.”
Managed by Purdue University’s engineering professor Rakesh Agrawal, a research group has developed a proposal that would generate three times the fuel from the same amount of biomass – focusing on improving results with biomass utilization. The researchers will use hydrogenation, where supplemental hydrogen is added to the gasification process. Hydrogen extracted from electrolyzed water would bond with carbons released during gasification – with power for electrolysis coming from carbon-free sources.
This technique converts all carbon discharged from the synthesized feedstock to liquid hydrocarbon fuel either through suppression of carbon dioxide formation or recycling of the carbon dioxide back into the gasifier. As explained in the proposal, a pathway is suggested where neither coal nor biomass is treated as a sole source of energy to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuel. Suppression or recycling of carbon dioxide from coal processing is significant since its carbon emissions would heavily contribute to the greenhouse effect.
The research team will be invited to speak at the BioCycle Seventh Annual Conference on “Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling.” The Conference will be held at the Radisson Hotel City Centre in Indianapolis, Indiana, on October 1, 2, 3, 2007. See the program in this issue for details.
In mid-May, Sanimax Energy shipped its first large-scale load of biodiesel to Progressive Farmers Cooperative in Northeast Wisconsin. “This is an exciting time for the Bio Industry in Wisconsin, and we’re excited to contribute to the fuel needs of our state’s consumers,” says Sanimax plant manager Russ Read in DeForest. Adds John Schmidt of the Progressive Farmers Coop: “We primarily sell biodiesel blended with 95 percent regular diesel, but for those people who want 100 percent biodiesel, we do have supplies available.”
Another founding member of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance (WBIA) – BEST Energies – is constructing an eight million gallon biodiesel plant in Cashton, and Utica Energy is adding biodiesel capabilities to its ethanol plant in Johnson Creek. Meanwhile, North Prairie Productions is constructing a 45 million gallon plant in Evansville, and Midwest Biofuel is building a 10 million gallon plant in Clinton.
The Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance is the state’s first alliance of top leaders in the development of biobased renewable energy, power and products. Businesses, environmental groups and statewide and local organizations have joined to build public and legislative awareness.

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