Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Traverse City Biomass Debate

Or, the energy debate.
Or biomass no, biogas from biomass yes.

If northern Michigan is going to have a thriving economy then cheap and plentiful sources of electricity are a necessity. For example, large technology companies such as Google, Amazon, eBay, FaceBook, Yahoo, and Apple are searching for cheap, dependable, reliable, and clean sources of energy for their data centers. Likewise, if the Michigan economy is going to scale up in any way then it needs reliable sources of electricity.

Mayor Bzdok did a great service for the community when he listed his Pros and Cons for energy sources. See: biomass: my 2¢. Feb 22
Kudos to him for having an opinion yet staying open to the facts and community opinion.

The Record-Eagle reports that City Commissioners are likely to support the plant: Officials largely in favor of biomass plant

My view is that biomass is a locally renewable resource but the burning of straight biomass has issues. Both in terms of environmental pollutants and source materials. Plus, the direct burning of biomass only has about 10% efficiency. For comparison, the best natural gas power plants have an efficiency of around 65% ( There are people who don't want to burn anything to create energy. This is obviously the future - energy without combustion - but how do we get there? TCLP can't be expected to install huge solar arrays and wind farms immediately. What we need is a low cost and reliable transitional energy source.

Every thing I have read so far indicates TCLP is considering the direct combustion of biomass. This is very old technology and really is not that far removed from burning wood in your fireplace. (See How Biomass Energy Works). But TCLP getting into the biomass business is not a bad thing. There is great potential in biomass for cellulosic fuel production and other technologies currently in development. If TCLP were to become a biomass broker they would be well placed for future technological developments.

What I want to see is biogas made from biomass and then that biogas burned to create electricity. This is the cleanest and most efficient approach.

My recommendation to TCLP would be to take a multi-part multi-phase approach. Begin by building a small natural gas power plant. This is a clean, proven, and efficient energy source. But, I would future-proof it by requiring the power plant design to allow the direct injection of biogas into the natural gas stream. Have anaerobic digesters and the ability to pyrolyze biomass on-site. The power plant design would begin operation as a natural gas plant and in the next 10 years or so bring the biogas components online and to fully replace the natural gas component by 2030. This approach allows flecibility as the gas component can be bought from whatever is the cheapest source at the time.

Right now that might be natural gas. But as this fossil fuel peaks other sources of biogas include landfills, dairy and pig farm holding tanks, wastewater treatment plants, and vegetable matter from forests or fields. Plus, biogas is mostly methane which is a much more effective heat trapping gas than carbon dioxide, so by capturing methane from living organisms and burning it to produce heat and CO2 you can actually decrease the climate impact that this byproduct would normally have.

And also as a first step offer subsidies (up to $5000 for example) to commercial and residential customers to install their own smart meter appliances and renewable energy sources including solar, wind, or home fuel cell (e.g., bloom box, or the Panasonic home fuel cell) in order to distribute the energy making capacity of the grid.

As a second phase of energy production I would like TCLP to look at creating electricity without having to burn anything. This means solar, wind, and hydro in the form of slow-moving lake currents. University of Michigan professor Michael Bernitsas will be testing his device this summer in the St. Clair river. Are the water currents across the mouth of Grand Traverse Bay or between the mainland and the Manitou Islands great enough to generate electricity? Not sure, but what is known is that the Straights of Mackinac could be a tremendous generator of clean energy. Wind turbines are already up in the area to harness the natural squeeze of wind through the Straights. The water currents work in the same way. TCLP could partner with the electric Co-Op there to use the Michigan developed technology VIVACE technology to harness the slow-current through the straights and power perhaps much of the area.

For more information see:
The research progress of biomass pyrolysis processes

Anaerobic Digestion and Bio-Gas

Roasting biomass may be key process in bioenergy economy

Wood Biomass for Energy

'Fish technology' draws renewable energy from slow water currents

Bio Gas Recovery

Vortex Hydro Energy