SERC Co-Hosts Woody Biomass Workshop

Biomass energy is an important resource in Humboldt County and other heavily forested regions. Woody biomass residues include waste materials generated during timber harvest operations. Often referred to as slash piles, these materials are typically piled and burned in the forest. Small trees, limbs and brush cleared in fire hazard reduction efforts are another source of biomass that are often piled and burned. Under the right set of circumstances, these materials can be processed, transported and used as a renewable fuel source, providing environmental and economic benefits.

The Woody Biomass Utilization Group at the University of California, Berkeley has been working for many years to further the use of biomass energy. To accomplish this, they have hosted regional workshops throughout the state since 2006. This past fall they held a series of regional workshops with a focus on “community scale wood bioenergy.” SERC co-hosted one of these workshops at the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center in Eureka.

The biomass workshop featured presentations and site tours, including the Community Scale Biomass Power System at Blue Lake Rancheria.

The biomass workshop featured presentations and site tours, including the Community Scale Biomass Power System at Blue Lake Rancheria.

November 7th was a beautiful day on the Eureka waterfront, and we had an enthusiastic turnout of more than 60 attendees, as well as a full slate of dynamic speakers. One key topic at the workshop was an update on California Senate Bill 1122. This bill, enacted in September of 2012, directs investor-owned utilities in California to purchase 50 MW of biomass power from community-scale, distributed energy systems of less than or equal to 3 MW. The woody biomass fuel must be sourced from by-products of sustainable forest management, such as materials generated during fire threat reduction activities. This bill will create new opportunities for the development of distributed biomass energy systems.

Other topics covered during the workshop included siting and permitting, project financing, feedstock and technology, and regionally specific topics such as local case studies and projects.  Presentations on local projects in which SERC is significantly involved included the RePower Humboldt planning project, which identified biomass energy as an important local renewable energy resource; the Blue Lake Rancheria biomass gasification project, where SERC is leading the design and installation of a local distributed biomass energy system; and the HSU Biomass Research and Development Initiative project, which is soon to get underway.

Aqueous Phase Reformation: New Pathway for Renewable Biomass to Offset Fossil Fuels

I’ve been leading a new area of research aimed at offsetting natural gas consumption with hydrogen produced from biomass-derived sugars or waste glycerol from biodiesel production. The process utilizes waste heat in the exhaust from internal-combustion-engine power plants to drive chemical reactions that produce hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be blended with the primary natural gas fuel in order to enhance combustion. Hydrogen-enriched combustion can increase efficiency by up to 20% and reduce emissions of NOx by more than 95%.

The current project is focused on understanding the use of catalysts in aqueous phase reformation (APR) processes to speed up chemical reactions so that medium-temperature waste heat can be used to reform a wide range of plant based feedstocks.

Mark Severy recently graduated with a M.S. in Environmental Resources Engineering from HSU.  His thesis modeled the waste heat resources available from large internal-combustion-engine power plants like the one at the Humboldt Bay Generating Station. His work demonstrates that, depending on engine type and operating conditions, there is sufficient waste heat to replace a significant portion of the natural gas with hydrogen produced from waste glycerol left over from biodiesel production.  His work also shows that water vaporization in APR can consume a significant portion of the recovered waste heat.  By raising the APR pressure, this water vaporization could be reduced. We are currently applying for grants to experimentally investigate high-pressure APR.

Waste heat from engine exhaust is used to convert the feedstock into hydrogen rich gas. The hydrogen produced in the reformer will be mixed with natural gas and air in the combustion engine to increase efficiency and reduce emissions.

Waste heat from engine exhaust is used to convert the feedstock into hydrogen rich gas. The hydrogen produced in the reformer will be mixed with natural gas and air in the combustion engine to increase efficiency and reduce emissions.

BLR Biomass Project

A key element of our RePower Humboldt vision is to use the county’s extensive biomass resource to produce electricity for local consumption. The goal of the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) Biomass Project is to do just that. We plan to gasify redwood sawdust from our mills, use it to produce hydrogen fuel for a fuel cell, and generate electricity for BLR’s hotel and casino complex. The system will be the first of its kind.

The project has a short timeline and we have a tremendous amount of work to accomplish before the March 31, 2015 project end date. Thankfully, we are making good progress and we see a successful path forward.

The key stages of the BLR project include system design, equipment procurement, installation, start-up and commissioning, testing and evaluation, and final reporting.  We are currently in the design phase. Before finalizing the selection of major system components we need to pin down the composition of the syngas (“syngas” is short for synthetic gas and refers to the gas that comes from the gasifier when biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen). We are now working with project partner Proton Power, Inc., the gasifier manufacturer, to have their syngas tested. The test will be performed by a third party vendor, the Shaw Group (recently acquired by Chicago Bridge and Iron Works, or CB&I).

We expect the gas to be predominantly hydrogen with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide impurities. Hydrogen is the fuel that will power the fuel cell. Carbon monoxide is detrimental to fuel cell operation and must be removed.  The gas will be cleaned up to a purity of greater than 99.9% hydrogen using a pressure swing adsorption unit, or PSA.  We are working with project partner Xebec Adsorption, Inc. to design and provide a PSA that will meet our requirements.

Once we know the syngas composition, we will also be able to specify other key components, including gas compressors and buffer storage tanks needed in the system. The final component in the system, the fuel cell generator, has already been purchased by the Rancheria and is sitting on their property.  It is a 175-kW Ballard ClearGen™ fuel cell. Over the next 15 months we will be very busy working to complete this project, and we will be sure to take a few moments each quarter to up-date you on our progress. It’s exciting to be working on this state-of-the-art energy system right here in our backyard.

Biomass Energy Workshop

SERC is proud to be co-hosting a biomass energy workshop along with the University of California’s Woody Biomass Utilization Group.  The workshop will take place on November 7th from 8:30 AM to 5 PM at HSU’s Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center in Eureka.  Recent energy planning work conducted by SERC identified biomass as a key renewable energy resource for our North Coast communities.  The goals of this workshop will be to:

  1. Increase practical understanding of critical environmental, engineering, and economic considerations for developing and retaining wood bioenergy systems.
  2. Provide a forum for stakeholders to identify issues, forge partnerships and articulate a vision for the role of wood bioenergy in forest restoration and management at the regional scale.

For more information and to register visit the workshop website here.

A Message from the Director

AJ headshot 3We have completed the transition from summer to fall here in far northern California, and – while it has been clear and sunny for the past few days – we recently had the first heavy rainstorm of the season. As the seasons change, we remain busy at SERC with a diverse portfolio of clean energy projects. The selection of articles in this newsletter reflects this diversity.

In the lead article, Richard Engel reports on a project that is in line with our broader work aimed at enabling energy access in off-grid areas ranging from South Asia to East Africa. We are also happy to report on recent progress in our biomass energy collaboration with Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT). We look forward to deepening our work with RFT and others in the field as we expand our efforts in this arena.

Several other articles reflect our long tradition of work related to clean transportation. We were pleased to be in a position to fuel the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that SERC alum Anand Gopal and his wife Liz Pimentel drove up from the Bay Area. We hope this event will be the first of many such occurrences made possible by our hydrogen vehicle fueling station.

We are also pleased to extend our plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) charging infrastructure planning work from California to India. The work in New Delhi, which involves collaboration with Anand Gopal and colleagues from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, will require analysis in a new and complex setting involving very different driving patterns and electricity infrastructure. We at SERC always like to get involved in new and challenging work, and we hope to contribute meaningfully to the wider effort to enable cleaner transportation systems in New Delhi and beyond.

I will close by welcoming several new members to the SERC team. This August, Nick Bryant of Washington state and Amit Khare of New Delhi, India started work at SERC. They are also pursuing master’s degrees in the Energy Technology and Policy (ETaP) program here at HSU. We also have three additions to our docent team, including Yaad Rana, Onomewerike “Robo” Okumo, and Jake Coniglione. All are undergraduate students in the Environmental Resources Engineering program. It is great to have these students on board.

SERC Completes Instrumentation of RFT Torrefier

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The newly-installed air-measurement devices.

In September, Greg Chapman and I made our second trip to Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT) to continue work on measuring the energy and mass balances of RFT’s pilot-scale torrefier. The one-ton-per-day torrefier produces a charcoal-like product called bio-coal from wood waste by heating biomass to 300°C in the absence of air. The bio-coal can then be co-fired in a power plant with standard fuels such as coal or wood chips to generate renewable electricity. SERC’s measurements of the device will aid in designing the torrefier for mobile, stand-alone operation and optimizing the technology for commercial use in converting timber waste into very low carbon renewable energy. This work is funded by the California Energy Commission.

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The newly-installed torrgas sample condenser.

During this visit, we installed new instrumentation on the pilot-scale torrefier to measure power, air and gas flows.  Greg also designed, built, and installed a condenser to sample the condensable portion of the gas by-product of the torrefaction process, called torrgas, which is used to generate heat as a key part of RFT’s efficient design.  An initial test run of the system using the new instrumentation was successful, and planning is now underway to procure and transport several tons of wood chips to RFT, which will be used in a series of torrefaction experiments under varying conditions to collect detailed data on the operating characteristics of the system.

SERC Receives Funding for Bio-Energy Research

A $95,000 California Energy Commission (CEC) grant enables SERC, in partnership with Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT) of San Mateo, to continue experiments aimed at converting slash from logging and fuel reduction efforts into energy dense bio-coal. RFT has developed a pilot-scale, one ton per day torrefier which produces bio-coal from timber waste by heating biomass to 300°C in the absence of air. Bio-coal can be co-fired in a power plant with standard fuels such as coal or wood chips to generate renewable electricity.

This new project involves measuring the energy and mass balances in RFT’s pilot-scale unit. These measurements will aid in designing the torrefier for mobile, stand-alone operation and optimizing the technology for commercial use. Mobility is considered crucial if torrefier technology is to become commercially viable. A good deal of forest debris lies in remote, difficult to reach locations, generating high logistics overhead. By making biomass three times as energy dense, the mobile torrefier would provide a far more economical approach as well as a major incentive to commercial conversion of timber waste into very low carbon renewable energy.

The CEC also awarded SERC Faculty Research Associate Dr. David Vernon $94,993 to examine the use of sugars from biomass to offset fossil fuel use, increase efficiency and reduce emissions in combustion processes. This work uses plant-derived sugars in chemical reactions that consume waste heat to produce a hydrogen-rich gas that can be mixed with traditional fuels to promote more complete combustion. This process has the potential to replace up to 50% of the fossil fuel and to increase efficiency by as much as 25%. It could also reduce emissions of NOx by over 95% while maintaining or reducing emission levels of other pollutants. If successful, the technology developed from this work could be retrofit onto existing gas turbines and engines in power plants and gas pipeline compressor stations without requiring costly modifications to the existing systems.

Graduate Student Assistants Mark Severy and Billy Karis (left) and Faculty Research Associate David Vernon test aqueous phase reformation reactions.

Graduate Student Assistants Mark Severy and Billy Karis (left) and Faculty Research Associate David Vernon test aqueous phase reformation reactions.

Specifically, this project explores the use of aqueous phase reformation reactions that directly process sugars and operate at lower temperatures than the gas phase reformation reactions that are being investigated for waste heat recovery elsewhere. Sugars can be produced from virtually any cellulosic biomass, including waste resources such as forestry slash, lumber mill waste, crop residues, portions of municipal solid waste, yard waste, etc. By operating at lower temperatures, aqueous phase reformation has the potential to recover significantly more waste heat compared to gas phase reformation reactions.

RePowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy

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In March of this year, along with our partner, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), we completed the three-year RePower Humboldt project funded by the California Energy Commission (CEC). A key deliverable, the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan, identified future energy scenarios for Humboldt County in which local renewable energy resources could provide over 75 percent of local electricity needs and a significant portion of heating and transportation energy needs by 2030. The plan pinpoints biomass and wind energy as key resources. In addition, large-scale adoption of plug-in electric vehicles and heat pumps was found to be critical to the cost-effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the RePower Humboldt team is looking for opportunities to put the plan into action.

At our final project review meeting in Sacramento, CEC project manager Mike Sokol mentioned how impressed the CEC has been with the quality of our work. Now they have backed up this praise with a proposed award to begin implementing the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan.  The follow-on grant, a $1.75 million award, again partners SERC with RCEA and also includes the Blue Lake Rancheria as a new project partner. Our proposal was ranked third among 30 submissions and was one of only four awards in our research area.

The new project, called Repowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy, is expected to begin in June of 2013 and will run through March of 2015. The purpose of the project is to demonstrate and validate key aspects of the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan.  The project will include two main elements: SERC will lead the design and installation of a first-of-its-kind woody biomass gasifier and fuel cell power system, and RCEA will implement a community-based energy upgrade program.

The biomass energy system will be installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria casino and hotel where it will supply about a third of the electric power needs. It will feature a Proton Power gasifier that turns sawdust-sized woody biomass into hydrogen fuel, and a 175-kW Ballard fuel cell that generates electricity from hydrogen. Waste heat from the system will be used to meet hot water needs. We aim to achieve a biomass-to-electricity efficiency double that of a comparable-scale, conventional steam power plant. If successful, this project could open up a new market for distributed-scale, biomass combined heat and power systems.

The energy upgrade component will focus on services for residences and businesses in the Mad River valley community (City of Blue Lake, Blue Lake Rancheria, and surrounding areas), including energy efficiency, solar energy systems, heat pumps, and the installation of two electric vehicle charging stations. This energy upgrade will demonstrate a comprehensive, community-based energy services model that can be replicated throughout the state.

The RePowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy project is an exciting effort that will help move Humboldt County toward a secure energy future. Watch for updates in future newsletters as the project unfolds.

All project documents for the RePower Humboldt project, including the strategic plan, a regulatory and policy guide on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and other technical reports and memos can be accessed on SERC’s web page here.

Photo credit: Malene Thyssen (wave) and Bin vim Garten (vehicle).

SERC Hosts Biomass Meeting

Biomass Meeting April 2011

Biomass energy VIPs gather around the torrefier at SERC. Photo credit Kellie Brown, HSU Photographer.

SERC’s recently launched collaboration with biomass energy startup Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT) reached an important milestone on April 7, when a group of U.S. Forest Service officials, professional foresters, and biomass specialists from across the country convened at SERC for a Torrefaction Research, Development, and Commercialization Meeting.

The meeting included a demonstration of RFT’s prototype wood torrefier that had been recently moved to SERC. Many of the meeting participants, including RFT’s technical and business leadership team, braved late-season storms and a major landslide to make the trek up from the Bay Area.

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Humboldt County Clean Energy Futures

Humboldt Bay Power Plant

RESCO Project Manager Jim Zoellick stands next to a 10 MW Natural Gas generator, one of sixteen that were recently installed by PG&E to replace the aging power plant at King Salmon south of Eureka. The generators will be a good match to intermittent renewable energy like wind and wave power. (Photo credit Jim Zoellick)

The Humboldt County Renewable Energy Secure Community (RESCO) project gives all of us at SERC a welcome opportunity to focus our effort on the community where we live, work, and play. The goal of the RESCO project is to forge a strategic plan for Humboldt County to develop clean and renewable energy resources that meet at least 75% of our electricity needs and a significant fraction of our heating and transportation needs. Our main project partner is the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA). RCEA is focused on political and strategic issues; SERC is doing the technical and economic work.

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