RePower Humboldt: Biomass-Fired Fuel Cell Power System

The 175 kW biomass-fired fuel cell power system being installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria is nearly complete. The Proton Power gasifier has been installed and gone through initial start-up procedures, including heating up the gasifier to temperature and running the flare. The gas compression system (rotary claw compressor, syngas ballast tank, and reciprocating compressor) has been tested and the control strategy has been confirmed. The Xebec pressure swing adsorption (PSA) hydrogen purifier is installed and ready for testing, and the Ballard PEM fuel cell is in place and has undergone pre-commissioning. Most of the peripheral systems (biomass feed, control, fire alarm and life safety, cooling, and ventilation) are complete or very near completion. Our next steps will be to obtain a fuel with a moisture content no greater than 40% (wet basis); begin making syngas; test and confirm syngas quality; and then fully commission the PSA and fuel cell system, as well as the fully integrated system. We submitted a draft final report to the CEC in March, but work on the system will continue over the next few months until we achieve full system operation and performance testing. Following these activities a revised final report will be submitted.

The Proton Power biomass gasifier installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria.

The Proton Power biomass gasifier installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria.

BRDI Waste to Wisdom: Remote Power Generation and Summer Testing

BRDI-2-webSERC continues work on the BRDI Waste to Wisdom project, a three-year, multidisciplinary project to study pathways to convert forest residuals – or slash piles – into valuable energy and agricultural products at processing sites near timber harvest locations. Many of the potential processing sites do not have access to electricity, so SERC has been analyzing various methods to power this industrial equipment in remote locations. With help from the Environmental Resources Engineering capstone design course, SERC completed a technical and economic feasibility analysis comparing various remote power generation technologies, including waste heat recovery, biomass gasification, solar photovoltaic, and others. The results from this paper study indicate that a biomass gasifier is likely to outperform the other technologies in terms of mobility, cost, reliability, and environmental impact. After presenting these finding to the U.S. Department of Energy, the funding agency for this project, we procured a mobile, 20 kW biomass gasifier (similar to the one in the photo above) from All Power Labs in Berkeley, CA. Once it arrives, we will begin a series of tests to evaluate whether its performance will meet the requirements to operate in the demanding conditions of a forest-landing site.

With the gasifier being fabricated and a torrefier and a briquetter being prepared for shipment, it’s shaping up to be an exciting and eventful spring and summer of biomass fieldwork. SERC will lead the effort to test the torrefier, briquetter, and gasifier generator set at a forest-landing site in Big Lagoon, CA. We will measure the performance characteristics of each machine with a variety of biomass feedstocks recovered from timber harvest operations here in northern California. In addition to testing these machines individually, their synergy in an integrated system will be evaluated by connecting them together. For example, we will conduct experiments to densify torrefied biomass and to evaluate whether the gasifier generator set can reliably provide electricity to the other machines. Having these three commercial-scale technologies at a single site provides a unique testing and demonstration experience.

To prepare for this fieldwork, we have been busy developing the testing matrices, procuring feedstocks, detailing our instrumentation plans, preparing our data analysis tools, and coordinating associated logistical issues. The entire BRDI team is looking forward to a productive season of data collection and analysis that will help address the key issues posing a barrier to recovery and utilization of forest residual waste.

RePowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy


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).