Forest Biomass Energy: Looking for the Big Picture

This spring SERC embarked on a major forest biomass energy research project in partnership with Humboldt State University’s forestry department and researchers, entrepreneurs, and natural resource management agencies from a number of western and midwestern states. The “Waste to Wisdom” project will examine the entire supply chain of biomass, including collection, transportation, and pre-treatment of the material in the woods, as well as conversion of the material into energy and other marketable products using a variety of emerging technologies. Experts in economics, life cycle analysis, and environmental impacts will assess and compare the different biomass pathways.


Mike Alcorn, chief forester for Green Diamond Resource Company, shows the BRDI research team a site where material is collected for use at Humboldt County’s biomass power plants.

The project officially launched with a kick-off meeting at HSU on May 13 and 14. The project’s thirteen principal investigators as well as several other stakeholders gathered to meet one another and discuss how to coordinate the many components of this complex effort. The meeting included a trip to a nearby timber harvest site on Green Diamond Resource Company land where state-of-the-art technology and logistics are being used to gather, chip, and haul slash for use in Humboldt County’s biomass power plants.


SERC director Arne Jacobson, U.S. Forest Service economist Ted Bilek, and HSU forestry professor Han-Sup Han will lead BRDI’s three research teams.

SERC’s role in the project is to oversee the testing and evaluation of three different types of biomass conversion technologies (BCTs): a biochar unit, a torrefier, and a briquetter. Biochar is solid, carbon-rich biomass that has been treated at high temperature, above 500°C, and is used principally as a soil amendment. Torrefaction takes place at a lower temperature, near 300°C, producing a solid fuel that can be directly substituted for coal in existing power plants. Briquettes are made near ambient temperature by compressing finely ground biomass and can be used in place of cordwood in biomass-fired heating and power generation systems. An important goal of Waste to Wisdom is to adapt each of these BCTs for mobile, stand-alone use at remote sites where utility service is not available. Decentralized deployment of these BCTs could be an economically viable alternative to the costly collection and transportation of raw biomass from far-flung timber harvest and wildland fuel reduction sites.

The $7.45 million, three-year project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) program, jointly supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each of the collaborating partners is making a cost share contribution to the project’s total budget. SERC’s share of the federal funding is $900,000, to which the lab is adding $185,000 worth of labor, equipment, and facility use.

SERC director Arne Jacobson will act as principal investigator for the BCT evaluation component of Waste to Wisdom. “We are excited to be involved in this project. We have a great set of partners, and we look forward to a successful effort.”

SERC Speaks Up on State Energy RD&D Funding

California is just now launching the first round of funding opportunities under its new Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program, which will support research, development and demonstration (RD&D) for promising new energy technologies. Meanwhile, the State has already begun planning for the next round of EPIC funding, to become available starting in 2015. The California Energy Commission (CEC) recently released a draft 2015-17 Triennial Investment Plan and solicited public comments on funding priorities for this second round. SERC provided input on two important fields, forest biomass energy and offshore power, including wind and wave technologies.

Our letter on offshore energy points out how these untapped resources offer great potential for California’s renewable energy portfolio. However, we note that California is at risk of falling behind on developing offshore wind and wave technologies. We also make the case that California’s north coast is especially ripe for RD&D and eventual commercial development of coastal energy.

Many rural northern California communities generate substantial volumes of biomass residue in their forestry sectors, and these resources offer significant biomass energy development opportunities. The EPIC program has a substantial focus on biomass energy funding initiatives. SERC voiced general support for these initiatives, with an emphasis on field deployable densification technologies, such as torrefaction, and efficient energy conversion technologies, such as gasification. These technologies are critical to the economic viability of biomass energy development.

Visit the CEC’s EPIC page to view comments from SERC on biomass and offshore energy.

Stand-Alone Torrefaction Update

As we reported previously, SERC is collaborating with Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT) to assess performance of RFT’s biomass torrefier. The torrefier converts wood waste from logging or forest thinning, roasting it to make a renewable energy product that can replace coal in power plants. The testing is funded by a grant from the California Energy Commission. The goal of the assessment is to determine whether waste heat from the torrefier can be used to make the device self-powered for off-grid use at timber harvest sites. Such use could make recovery of waste material at these sites more cost-effective.

This past fall, SERC engineers made multiple trips to RFT’s abrication and testing facility in Hayward, CA. We first procured about three tons of tanoak wood chips in Humboldt County and delivered them to RFT. Tanoak is of special interest because it is abundant in northwest California but considered of low value as a timber species.


An array of torrefied wood chips shows the effects of varying temperature and processing time. The raw biomass is shown in the column on the right.

We next performed a series of test runs with RFT engineers, in which we varied the moisture content of the feedstock, operating temperature, and residence time of the material in the roaster. We collected operating data such as temperatures, material flow rates, and electric power use during each run. In addition, we collected samples of the raw wood chips used for each run as well as the solid, liquid, and gas outputs from the process for later laboratory analysis. All of these data allowed us to perform a rigorous energy and mass balance for the process, key to determining the feasibility of stand-alone operation.

Our tentative conclusion is that such operation may be feasible, though the design may need further modification to reduce heat loss to the surroundings. We are now working to prepare our final report to the Energy Commission.

Solar Mini-Grids Put India’s Villages in a New Light

India article photo

Project team member Brendon Mendonça leads a focus group discussion with villagers.

As we reported in our spring issue, SERC is part of an international team assessing opportunities to use solar power for rural electrification in India. Providing solar power via a central PV array and a village distribution system, or mini-grid, can be more cost-effective and durable than providing independent solar electric systems for each household.

This approach is already being used widely in rural India, but in most cases implemented by government agencies that provide heavy subsidies. Recent financial turmoil and growing public sector deficits in India demonstrate that these subsidies are not sustainable for the long term. Our team’s client, Indian company Azure Power, is interested in learning whether a for-profit firm can provide mini-grid service at a price that even lower income villagers can afford. Financial assistance for the study comes from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

We have now completed nearly all of our work on the three tasks we led: a literature survey of similar projects in other developing countries; an assessment of how Indian energy policy and regulations might affect such projects; and field studies to estimate energy demand and willingness to pay for electricity in candidate villages Azure Power has selected.

SERC staff including Tom Quetchenbach and Meg Harper made important contributions to the first two tasks. For the third task, I traveled to India for two weeks in June, accompanied by the project lead, Priya Sreedharan, from the San Francisco energy consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics (E3) and former HSU graduate student/SERC student assistant Brendon Mendonça. In New Delhi, we met up with principals and staff of India-based consultant Varesh Energy, completing our field team. After a meeting with Azure Power staff, the team headed out to the two field sites in Eastern and Northern India.

After orienting ourselves and meeting with village leaders, we set to work conducting house-by-house surveys and holding focus group meetings. We collected demographic data, inquired about people’s expectations and desires for household electrification, and asked the villagers to respond to hypothetical electrification scenarios and associated costs. The two villages we focused on are not “greenfield” sites without previous electrification experience. One of them had previously been electrified with a mini-grid that was later removed, while the other village has partial grid electrification. The desire for electricity and willingness to pay were encouraging in both cases although the details and conditions varied between the villages. These field findings will be integrated into the engineering and economic analysis that remains to be conducted in the project to thoroughly assess the feasibility of solar minigrids for these two sites.

We have delivered our task completion reports to Azure Power, and they have responded with special enthusiasm to the field study, calling it “useful, thorough, well-done, and enjoyable.” In the coming months, SERC will continue to provide support to other project partners as they complete the remaining tasks on this important feasibility study. Upon completion of the entire project, the USTDA will make the main findings of this field study and the overall feasibility project accessible to the public through a publicly available report.

Designing Solar Mini-Grids for Rural India

In rural India, despite decades of electrification programs, about 400 million people making up half of all households still do not have access to electricity. SERC has recently joined a consortium of U.S.- and India-based energy experts to assess the feasibility of building solar photovoltaic mini-grids as a solution to the high cost of electrification in remote areas. These systems would each consist of a single solar generation station per village with a distribution network to provide power to all nearby homes and businesses. If successful, this model could be widely replicated at lower cost than providing each home with a stand-alone solar system.

SERC’s role in the project will include performing a literature survey of similar projects that have been installed in other developing countries, an assessment of how Indian energy policy and regulations affect the project, and field studies to estimate energy demand and willingness to pay for electricity in the participating villages. We will provide technical assistance to the rest of the team on several other project tasks.

The project is jointly funded by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and Azure Power of India. San Francisco firm Energy and Environmental Economics (E3) is the lead consultant.

SERC Helps HSU Tackle Campus Energy Use

SERC is in its third year of providing technical mentoring to HSU’s Humboldt Energy Independence Fund (HEIF). This innovative program collects a small fee from each HSU student every semester and uses this pool of funding to implement energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on campus. Among the many projects completed to date are a photovoltaic system on a campus rooftop and a retrofit of playfield lighting in the Redwood Bowl stadium. HEIF projects include student participation from initial idea development to full design and implementation. Students also participate actively alongside faculty and staff in HEIF program governance.

SERC engineers Richard Engel and Tom Quetchenbach currently oversee two teams of paid student HEIF interns. This year’s projects include:

  • a comprehensive inventory of campus lighting. Results are being shared with campus building maintenance staff, who will use the data to set lighting retrofit priorities.
  • development of energy-efficiency standards for campus remodels. Students are working with the campus Facilities Planning office to ensure such standards are used to specify new equipment, starting with energy-saving light fixtures.
  • creation of computer models to design indoor and outdoor retrofit projects for stage lighting in the music department’s main recital hall and roadway lighting for a campus entrance.

Tom and Richard support these projects by meeting regularly with the students, helping them plan their work, take field measurements, learn to use software, and solve other engineering problems.

HEIF interns and SERC mentor pore over campus building drawings.

The HEIF building standards team includes (left to right) interns Eric Sorensen and Danielle Burkhart and SERC mentor Tom Quetchenbach. Photo credit Michael Fisher.

Florida Tech Latest User of SERC Hydrogen Curriculum

SERC’s hydrogen experiment kits are now being used by chemistry students at Florida Institute of Technology (FIT). The kits were originally developed as part of SERC’s Department of Energy-funded Hydrogen Energy in Engineering Education (H2E3) project.

H2E3 was initially directed at engineering students at California universities, but we have had numerous inquiries from schools outside the state interested in the equipment and curriculum. In addition, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn that instructors in fields other than engineering find the H2E3 materials useful in meeting their own teaching objectives.

DOE financial support was also instrumental for Florida Tech in adopting the curriculum. Their College of Engineering/College of Science received DOE funding to develop hydrogen education materials including an experiment, Thermodynamics of a Hydrogen Fuel Cell, that is now used in a physical chemistry laboratory course required of all chemical engineering, chemistry, and biochemistry majors.  In this new experiment, based on the SERC kits and documentation, students explore the thermodynamics and efficiency of a hydrogen fuel cell and compare these results with the performance of the electrolyzer that produces the hydrogen and oxygen used in the fuel cell.

“The availability of the SERC resources has allowed the successful introduction of hydrogen fuel cells to our course with a relatively quick and easy adaptation, and the student response has been very positive,” said Dr. Clayton Baum, professor of chemistry at FIT.

The H2E3 project met its objectives and is no longer receiving financial support from DOE. However, we continue to maintain the project website at and offer the experiment kits and fuel cell test stations for sale. We welcome inquiries from instructors in any field interested in incorporating this hydrogen energy curriculum in your courses.

New Chapter in SERC Partnership with Kettering University

SERC has a long-standing working relationship with the mechanical engineering department at Kettering University in Flint, MI. As reported in the debut issue of this newsletter in 2006, we provided Kettering with a four-station fuel cell test stand and two fuel cell stacks. We even lost one of our finest fuel cell engineers, Antonio Reis, to Kettering’s engineering faculty, who recruited him to help run their fuel cell R&D program.

Kettering has continued to use that test stand and the SERC fuel cells over the past six years, periodically consulting with us on maintenance and upgrades to the equipment. This fall, we rebuilt their four-cell, 140 cm2 stack with new materials, enabling Kettering to keep on educating their students about fuel cell technology. More recently, Kettering has asked SERC to rebuild another of their aging stacks.

Kettering faculty expressed their pleasure to continue using SERC technology. “The SERC test equipment has been successfully used without any down time for teaching and research, year round, ever since it was first commissioned,” said Dr. Etim Ubong, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering. “Notably, the equipment was used at our Center for the U.S. Fuel Cell Council’s round-robin test and validation of low temperature PEM single cells. We really value our great relationship with SERC.”

Celebrating a Milestone

Louis Schatz

Dr. Louis Schatz and one of SERC’s custom-built fuel cell golf carts.

This year the Schatz Energy Research Center is observing the 100th anniversary of the birth of Louis W. Schatz, our original benefactor and the lab’s namesake. Mr. Schatz was born January 20, 1912 in Pittsburgh, PA. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in forestry in 1934, going on to earn a master’s degree at UC Berkeley in 1939. He established General Plastics Manufacturing Company in Tacoma, WA in 1941, where he served as president and owner for many years. General Plastics technology has been used in the NASA space shuttle, in Navy submarines, and in most Boeing passenger jets.

Mr. Schatz was an early and enthusiastic advocate for hydrogen energy. A series of phone calls with SERC director Peter Lehman at HSU in the spring of 1989 led to their discovery of this shared interest and to Mr. Schatz’s initial financial contribution to fund the Schatz Solar Hydrogen Project in Trinidad, CA. The success of this project led to the establishment of a permanent Schatz Energy Research Center with additional support from Mr. Schatz.

Mr. Schatz was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by HSU in May 1994 in recognition of his support of SERC and other HSU programs, including the L.W. Schatz Demonstration Tree Farm. Penn State, where he sponsored fellowships and endowed the creation of a center dedicated to tree genetics research, also honored him with an achievement award and named him an alumni fellow.

Peter summed up the feelings of all of us.  “We’re extremely fortunate to have a benefactor like Mr. Schatz,” he said.  “His unwavering support, his trust in our work, and his enthusiastic cheerleading made the good work of SERC possible.”

Mr. Schatz passed away September 22, 2001 in Pauma Valley, CA at the age of 89. He left additional funds in his estate that continue to support SERC’s work to this day, including the construction of our new facility completed last year. In total, Mr. Schatz contributed some $12 million to support SERC and other programs at HSU. Please join us in remembering this important champion of clean energy technology.

Hydrogen Education Pursues National Audience

In January, SERC submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to expand our work in hydrogen education with the goal of reaching a national audience. Working with proposal partners at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI, and San Francisco State University, we proposed to create a new “Teaching Energy Concepts with Hydrogen” (TECH2) project. This project would build on our recently completed (see January 2012 post) three year Hydrogen Energy in Engineering Education (H2E3) curriculum in which we worked with California universities in both the CSU and UC systems. The proposed TECH2 project would reach nearly 5,000 freshman engineering students across the country.