A step towards the use of biomass for power generation 02 Aug 2011

The potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through biomass co-firing is the subject of a new research report released today by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC).

The report examines the reasons why biomass co-firing has not been widely adopted in Australia, compared with other countries. The term biomass covers a wide range of bulky organic materials such as greenwaste and crop residues. Biomass co-firing utilises the energy in these materials, reducing the amount of fossil fuel used to generate electricity in power stations. 

The RIRDC report, Facilitating the Adoption of Biomass Co-firing for Power Generation, consulted with power generators in SE Queensland and NSW and a broad range of current and potential biomass suppliers in the region to identify barriers and opportunities for biomass use.

“Biomass co-firing is practiced commercially in Europe and USA and has been successfully piloted in Australia, but has not been widely adopted commercially here,” RIRDC Managing Director Craig Burns said.

The RIRDC report identifies some of the barriers to biomass co-firing, including:

  • The economics of biomass co-firing are marginal under existing policy settings (including renewable energy and carbon). Consequently, the maximum price that generators can afford to pay restricts potential biomass sources to very low cost materials

  • Resistance to combustion of woody material for energy production due to sustainability concerns

  • Known availability of low cost biomass. This falls short of volumes required for continuous low levels of co-firing

  • A lack of integrated biomass supply capability

  • A lack of information on biomass resource availability 

  • A lack of organised market for biomass

  • Perception that biomass co-firing is an established technology that does not require policy support for commercialisation

  • Community perception of plantations

The report identifies a number of recommendations for overcoming these barriers.

“Using only 3 percent by energy value of biomass in coal-fired power stations in Queensland has the potential to achieve greenhouse gas emissions savings of about 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum. However this would require about 1.3 million tonnes of biomass,” Mr Burns said.

“Accessing this amount of biomass at a price that makes biomass co-firing economically viable is one of the key issues for generators. Coal-fired power stations usually have one or two key suppliers of coal and they are usually located near the mine or connected to rail infrastructure. Biomass would need to be sourced from many sources so there are the logistics of organising the supply and transport of biomass to consider.

“To address this, generators would need third parties to aggregate and deliver competitively priced biomass in the volumes and timeframe required. There are also some quality criteria to meet engineering, environmental and sustainability requirements. Overall, generators see the need to balance the benefits of co-firing against risks to their core business.”

The report examined a number of possible sources of biomass in Queensland including bagasse (residue from sugarcane processing), sawmill waste, forest residues, crop residues such as straw, agroforestry biomass, coal seam gas-related biomass and urban waste.

The report was co-funded by RIRDC, the Queensland Office of Clean Energy (part of the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, DEEDI) and three Queensland electricity generators – CS Energy, NRG Gladstone Operating Services and Tarong Energy.

Facilitating the Adoption of Biomass Co-firing for Power Generation is available for free download or purchase from the RIRDC website