March 24, 2009 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: The Time-Value of Infrastructure

BioCycle March 2009, Vol. 50, No. 3, p. 45
Mark Jenner

The 2009 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AgSTAR Conference in Baltimore, Maryland at the end of February was an exciting meeting. There was a sense that with over 100 operating manure digesters in the U.S., a fledgling industry has been established. The anaerobic digester (AD) industry is a great example for discussing the benefits and risks of economic infrastructure development.
Kurt Roos, AgSTAR Program Leader, mentioned at the conference that 80 percent of the first digesters built in the 1980s failed. In 1995, there were only 8 operating farm digesters. Growing that number to 120 digesters in the last 14 years is exciting. Roos projected that we have only begun to tap the potential (less than 2 percent of farms with a potential for manure-based AD systems currently have projects).
Nora Goldstein did an excellent job of chronicling the evolution of this industry in last month’s issue of BioCycle. Farm-scale digesters began showing up in the 1970s. The digesters that failed were all part of a steep and costly learning curve. Now, 30 years into this experiment, the commercial nature of this industry is undeniable.
Change takes time and, for the most part, humans do not like to wait. Intuitively we would rather enjoy our resources now rather than build renewable resources into the future. It takes time and money to build a biobased industry structure.
The most common energy produced from farm methane digesters is electricity. However, the norm for electrical power generation is to build large central power plants, not lots of small, widely distributed power plants such as digesters. The permits and oversight for both environmental emissions and energy regulation are much easier to manage with fewer, but larger facilities. The utilities can hire a legal staff to manage the legal and regulatory aspects of power plant operation.
It is more difficult for a farm, producing crops and livestock, to get into the energy business. The farmer has to learn a little about energy and environmental law, as well as learn how to feed and care for a digester. Farm generators have no market power in dealing with the large electric utilities. The same issues exist between composters and large, central landfills, or even between biofuels facilities and large, central oil refineries.
Politically and economically we like to find something that works and use it forever. Large central landfills, power plants and oil refineries allow the stability for large capital investment. These systems lower the total costs over many units and add great value as they do so. They are not designed to change.
This inability to adapt to change also adds more costs to implementing the alternatives. The composting industry wrestles with this every day. The solid waste infrastructure is designed to suck solid waste into the landfills. Innovations and new uses are a sort of policy heresy. It almost takes a crisis to revisit the conventional policy infrastructure, before substantive change can occur. Well, we are in a raging economic crisis!
Biomass energy doesn’t work like fossil fuels and the centralized infrastructure they feed. While initially it is fine to try to feed the fossil fuel network with alternatives like biogas and biodiesel, the mature biomass infrastructure will look different than the current fossil fuel network. Many efficient, locally operating biomass, wind and solar power plants are driving the development of a new infrastructure. Biomass is less energy dense than coal or oil. This bulky nature of wood, crop fibers, paper and manures makes it expensive to transport to a large central location, only to transmit electricity a long distance to end users. The rapid growth of direct-use biogas projects is a good indicator that local production, and use, has value.
The new infrastructure must include a component of modularization that allows biomass feedstocks and technologies to be adjusted at each location. This does not mean every new technology must fit on a skid, but eventually digesters, gasifiers, composting and pelletizing units will be made to mix and match. Modular units for biomass, wind and solar energy production are being developed. This will continue to drive the new infrastructure.
To make it even more difficult, how do we build a regulatory infrastructure that turns our “economic bads” (wastes and emissions) into commodities? This is not a new idea. BioCycle has invested 50 years in solid waste diversion and reuse. Now we need to look at converting the greenhouse gases (methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide and VOCs) into commodities. The regulations, including the emerging cap and trade policies, must facilitate the evolution of emissions to commodities.
The unknowns associated with discovering a new kind of infrastructure are not to be taken lightly. If we get to the point where every community has multiple power plants, it may be more difficult to keep the price of electricity competitively low. There are scores of unintended consequences yet to be discovered.
Mistakes will be made and there will be costs. But it is humbling to try to imagine where we would be without the 50-year head start from the Goldsteins and BioCycle. The nonregulatory, market driven, EPA AgSTAR program has also played a formative role in the anaerobic digester industry. The very existence of a 15-year old, “market driven” EPA program is cause for hope.
Mark Jenner, PhD, operates Biomass Rules, LLC and has over 25 years of biomass utilization expertise. Burning Bio News is Jenner’s scorecard of bioenergy project adoption, available at

Sign up