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.

A Message from the Director

AJ headshot 3Happy New Year! I hope that 2014 is off to a good start for you all. The year promises to be a busy and productive one for the team at SERC. We have an exciting lineup of clean energy projects and activities across a number of subject areas.

In the energy access arena, we are in the final stage of negotiating a three-year, $1.6 million contract with the International Finance Corporation to continue our work as the technical lead for quality assurance for the Lighting Global initiative. Lighting Global is associated with the Lighting Africa and Lighting Asia programs, which support the development of markets for modern off-grid lighting and energy products. Under our contract, we will continue to manage the program’s quality assurance testing and verification program for off-grid lighting products. We will also lead a strategic effort to update and expand the program, conduct laboratory and field research related to the effort, and engage with key industry stakeholders. Our work to date for IFC has helped support rapid expansion of the use of solar charged off-grid lighting and energy systems. For example, over 2.7 million off-grid LED lights that were quality assured through the program have been sold in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2009, and sales have been doubling annually. Sales in South Asian countries such as India are also high. We look forward to our continued participation in the effort to expand access to clean and affordable energy for people without access to grid power in the years to come.

We will be similarly busy in the biomass energy arena. First, we are working closely with the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) and the Blue Lake Rancheria on a project involving the development of a cutting edge biomass-fueled power system to be installed at the Rancheria. The system involves a gasifier that converts woody biomass fuel into a hydrogen-rich syngas, which is, in turn, processed for use in a proton exchange membrane fuel cell. This year is a pivotal one for the effort, as we aim to make considerable progress toward the goal of having an operational system in 2015. We will also continue work on the conversion of biomass into useful fuels and other valuable products using technologies such as gasification, torrefaction and densification. We are currently finishing up one project in this area, and anticipate starting a significant new project in the coming months (details forthcoming).

We also have several projects in hand on the clean transportation front, including analyses related to electric vehicle infrastructure planning for Humboldt County, several other counties in the northern Central Valley of California, and the city of New Delhi. We learned in December that a $300K alternative transportation planning project (including electric vehicles and other alternative fuels) that we are conducting in partnership with RCEA and other regional partners was funded by the California Energy Commission. Special thanks go to Jim Zoellick, Colin Sheppard and Kevin Fingerman of SERC and Matthew Marshall, Dana Boudreau, and Jerome Carman of RCEA for leading that proposal development effort. We may have even more work in this area soon, as we learn the outcome of additional submitted proposals.

Last, but certainly not least, we will participate in a feasibility analysis for the development of a wave energy technology test site in California in collaboration with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a number of additional partners, including local partners RCEA, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, and HT Harvey and Associates. The analysis, which is a $750K effort funded by U.S. Department of Energy, involves consideration of sites near Humboldt Bay and San Luis Obispo.

I can say with confidence that 2014 will not be a dull one here at SERC. We are holding on to our hats. Goodbye until next time.

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.

Gasification: Torrefaction of Wood Samples

Wood chips before and after torrefaction.

Unprocessed wood chips (front) and the same feedstock after torrefaction. Photo credit Kellie Brown, HSU Photographer.

Although SERC’s three-year biomass gasification project is winding down, we are continuing to research biomass and its role as a renewable fuel. Our latest endeavour is torrefaction.

Torrefaction is a mild form of pyrolysis in which biomass is heated in an inert environment to a temperature between 200 and 300 °C. During the process, water and volatiles are removed and the hemicelluloses break down, yielding a dry, blackened solid product with a lower moisture content and higher energy content on a mass basis than the initial biomass.

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Gasification System Update

Gasifier Operation

Graduate Student Research Assistant Joe Purdon and Student Research Assistant James Apple observe the flare during a bagasse gasification trial. (Photo credit SERC).

For the past two years, SERC has been investigating biomass gasification for the Indonesian Sugar Group. Bagasse, a fibrous sugar cane waste product, is burned inefficiently in boilers at the Sugar Group factory. An alternative is gasification, a process of partially oxidizing biomass to produce combustible gases that can be burned cleanly and efficiently in a turbine to produce electricity. We are testing the feasibility of gasifying bagasse in a small-scale gasifier at SERC and investigating the economics of larger gasifiers that could be used by the Sugar Group.

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“Bagasse Across America” Road Trip

Drying bagasse in the sun

SERC graduate student research assistants Meg Harper and Joe Purdon sun-dry the fresh bagasse after unloading it from the rental truck. (Photo credit SERC).

This article was written by Joe Purdon.

As part of SERC’s ongoing gasification research, we are investigating the feasibility of gasifying bagasse on behalf of the Indonesian Sugar Group (see our Summer 2008 newsletter). After sugar and molasses have been extracted from sugarcane, bagasse is what remains of the cane. Sugar mills normally burn bagasse to generate electric or thermal energy. Gasification is potentially a cleaner and more efficient way of producing energy with this agricultural byproduct.

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Biomass Gasification: The Gasifier has been Commissioned

Gasifier Start Up

SERC staff gathers for the much-anticipated initial system start-up. See additional start-up photos on the back page. (Photo credit SERC).

The gasifier system has successfully completed shakedown testing and is now ready for experimental testing. The gasifier burns wood chips in an air-deficient environment to produce a combustible gas made up of mainly hydrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen. The preliminary test results indicate that the production gas composition is very close to the expected values as provided by the manufacturer. Upcoming experiments will include a series of runs using wood chips of varying moisture contents. The production gas will be sampled and analyzed with a gas chromatograph throughout these runs in order to determine the effect of moisture content in the wood chips on the resulting gas composition.

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Biomass Gasification Update

Gasifier Start Up

SERC staff gathers for the much-anticipated initial system start-up. See additional start-up photos on the back page. (Photo credit SERC).

This article was written by Ranjit Deshmukh.

We have successfully completed the first phase of our three- year Indonesian Gasification project in collaboration with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley. The project is designed to provide support and advice to the Indonesian Sugar Group (ISG) to play a role in the emerging clean energy markets.

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Indonesia Gasification Project and the Brazilian Experience

Ranjit, Anand, and Dr. Sanchez in Brazil.

Ranjit Deshmukh, Dr. Caio Sanchez, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Campinas, and Anand Gopal. (Photo credit SERC).

This article was written by Ranjit Deshmukh.

SERC is engaged in an exciting biomass to energy project in collaboration with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. SERC and RAEL are studying the feasibility of using gasification of sugarcane residue, called bagasse, for efficient cogeneration (heat and electricity) in the sugar industry. The client, Indonesian Sugar Group, wants to set up low carbon sugar mills; in other words, mills that produce the most amount of heat and electricity per quantity of fuel. Gasification combined with gas and steam turbines has the potential to be more efficient than traditional direct combustion power generation systems. By installing high efficiency power generation systems, the mills will be able to produce surplus electricity that can then be exported to the grid. In addition to earning revenues through electricity sales, the mills stand to earn more by selling carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol.

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Biomass Gasification Update

Gasifier Installation

SERC Research Engineer Mark Rocheleau (front left) and student research assistants assemble the biomass gasifier. (Photo credit SERC).

This update was written by Joe Purdon.

The gasifier has safely arrived from India! It is currently being installed here at SERC (see photo, below) and we expect to be generating gas within a month or two. SERC also received the gas chromatograph (GC). This instrument will be used to analyze the producer gas from the gasifier. Over the past two months, we have been studying the accuracy and precision of the GC with calibration gas. This gas mimics what will eventually come from the gasifier. The GC appears to be functioning very well.

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