US utilities look to biomass

3 October 2008

Rising fossil fuel prices are prompting utilities in the USA to include biomass in their power plant fuel mix.

Areva and Duke Energy have announced plans to form a joint venture firm to build and operate biomass power plants, while two other utilities – Oglethorpe Power Corporation and Xcel Energy – are also planning to use biomass.

Biomass provides a good alternative baseload power source, especially in States that are aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or increase renewable energy levels, says Duke Energy, which has formed a joint venture company with Areva to exploit opportunities in the growing biomass market. The new company is to be called Adage, and will develop wood waste-fired power plants in the USA. Under the agreement, Areva will design and build the plants while Duke will manage operations.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) is expecting the installed capacity of biomass-fired generation to double in the next ten years, partly due to the fact that federal and state environmental agencies consider biopower to be carbon neutral.

Oglethorpe Power Corporation – a major US power supply cooperative – is planning to construct up to 300 MW of biomass-fired generating capacity, while Xcel Energy has submitted an application to convert a coal-fired boiler at an existing plant to biomass gasification.

“This project comes at exactly the right time as Americans face soaring energy prices and look to meet rising electricity demand with green energy sources,” said Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. “The Adage biopower facilities will respond to our nation’s need for new baseload energy alternatives.”

In Georgia, Oglethorpe Power wants to use the state’s abundant biomass resources to fuel up to three new power plants based on fluidised bed boiler technology. Each of the plants will require a capital investment of $400-500 million and the first is scheduled to start operating in 2014.

Oglethorpe has secured options for five potential sites for the plants, which will use a woody biomass mixture based on processed roundwood, primary manufacturing residue and harvest residue. The second and third plants could be operational in 2015.

“Georgia has an abundant renewable biomass resource that is competitive with other available generation technologies,” said Tom Smith, president and CEO of Oglethorpe. “Unfortunately, our state is a poor location for wind energy and only has a modest potential for solar, thus making the case of biomass power generation as our best renewable alternative.”

Meanwhile Wisconsin-based Xcel Energy is planning to convert one unit of its Bay Front power plant to biomass as part of its programme to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the Midwest by 22 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. The $55-70 million project represents the first time that biomass gasification technology will be used to convert a coal-fired boiler at an existing baseload power plant in the US. Two of the plant’s three units are already using biomass as their primary fuel. The biomass is waste wood sourced from forest harvest operations. The plant currently uses just over 200 000 tons of waste wood per year, and will use an additional 185 000-250 000 tons/year when the conversion is complete.

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