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.

RePower Humboldt: BLR Biomass Facility Ventilation System Design Complete

Model of syngas concentration 5 minutes after a leak with the original (top) and final (bottom) ventilation designs. The pink areas are the zones where the concentration is immediately dangerous due to CO toxicity.

Models of syngas concentrations five minutes after a leak with the original (top) and final (bottom) ventilation designs. The pink areas are the zones where the concentration is immediately dangerous due to CO toxicity.

Last summer, the RePower team began evaluating the proposed ventilation system for the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) biomass energy facility. Each phase of the BLR gasification process involves a dangerous gas. First, biomass is processed into a syngas rich in hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This syngas is then processed into pure hydrogen and a waste gas rich in carbon monoxide. In normal operation, the syngas and hydrogen are fully contained, and the waste gas is safely burned in a flare. However, an accidental leak in the system could pose an immediate toxic or explosive danger. The ventilation system must give personnVentilation_Image_2el enough time to safely exit, and must clear hazardous gases from the building after the gasifier system shuts down.

To test different system designs, the RePower team used a software package from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to model contaminant flow in 3-D. We simulated various leak scenarios and examined how the placement of exhaust fans and intake vents affected the removal of toxic and flammable gases. We were able to improve on the original system design and create a more responsive, and robust system. The final design uses a combination of ceiling fans, wall fans, and floor vents to provide optimum ventilation. Following installation, the ventilation system will undergo a smoke test to validate the model results. Completion of this work will ensure a safe operating environment for the biomass facility.

RePower Humboldt: Blue Lake Elementary Heat Pump Study

Contractors installs one of the two heat pump units at Blue Lake Elementary school.

Contractors installs one of the two heat pump units at Blue Lake Elementary school.

In our last update we mentioned that SERC is working with the Redwood Coast Energy Authority to install and test heat pump systems at Blue Lake Elementary School. We hope to determine how well such systems work in our local climate and whether or not they can save money as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional systems.

Completed installation of the outdoor unit on top of the covered walkway in front of the classroom.

Completed installation of the outdoor unit on top of the covered walkway in front of the classroom.

In July, the project moved out of the planning phase and into hands-on implementation when HVAC contractor Crystal Air of Weaverville installed two Daikin mini-split units at the school. These systems consist of an outdoor compressor unit connected via insulated refrigerant lines to an indoor, wall mounted head (or air handler) which distributes the conditioned air throughout the classroom.

Data loggers with a USB cable for downloading the data to a laptop.

Data loggers with a USB cable for downloading the data to a laptop.

SERC installed a battery of monitoring sensors and data loggers on each of the heat pumps, as well as on the existing natural gas furnaces in two other classrooms. The information collected by the test equipment is being used to determine the amount of heat energy delivered to each of the classrooms as well as the total energy consumed by each of the systems in the process. In the case of the heat pumps, this consists entirely of electricity, while the gas furnaces (as the name implies) rely mostly on natural gas, but also require a moderate amount of electricity for the fan and other electrical components.

Following a shakedown period in which various problems were discovered and rectified, the system is now reliably collecting data around the clock. Preliminary results show that the heat pump systems are consuming less electricity than the conventional furnaces. However, the weather has been so mild up until recently that none of the systems have been used extensively. In addition, the colder it is outside, the more difficult it is for heat pumps to absorb enough energy from the outdoors to heat a room. The true test will come when outdoor temperatures are much lower and heat demand is correspondingly higher.

RePower Humboldt: BLR Biomass to Energy Project

The design and procurement phases of the BLR Biomass to Energy Project are in full swing and the project team is involved in a flurry of activity. A group of engineers from SERC, as well as staff from Serraga Energy, LLC at the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) project site, are meeting weekly to discuss design decisions and move the effort forward. Frequent interactions are also taking place with our technology partners: Proton Power (gasifier), Xebec Adsorption (PSA gas cleanup unit), and Ballard Power Systems (fuel cell). Below is a list of key activities currently underway:

  • site layout is largely completed
  • fire marshal review – first phase is complete
  • site work has begun and will ramp up significantly over the next few weeks
  • gasifier is being fabricated – witness testing will occur in late July with delivery in August
  • PSA design and fabrication are underway – delivery is expected in late August
  • syngas compressor requirements have been specified and quotes have been obtained – orders will be placed in the next couple of weeks
  • fuel cell is on site – installation is slated for July or August
  • central control and monitoring system – design is underway
  • ventilation system – design analysis is underway
  • fuel storage and processing – design is underway
  • electrical service (auxiliary power supply and fuel cell generator/utility interconnection) – electrical engineer and contractor team are working on design, procurement, and the utility interconnect application with Pacific Gas & Electric
BLR site photo

Neil Harris (far right) with electrical and construction experts implementing site design at Blue Lake Rancheria. Photo credit Serraga Energy, LLC.

The next phases of the project will include component installation (summer and early fall 2014), system integration and commissioning (fall 2014), and system operation, data collection, analysis and reporting (late fall and winter 2014/15). Stay tuned for additional updates in upcoming newsletters.

RePower Humboldt Update

Dana Boudreau of RCEA displays air flow measuring equipment that will be used in the heat pump study.

Dana Boudreau of RCEA displays air flow measuring equipment that will be used in the heat pump study.

Numerous SERC staff are busy working on the RePower Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy project. Most of our recent efforts have been focused on the design of the biomass gasification to fuel cell project at the Blue Lake Rancheria.  We also met recently with Redwood Coast Energy Authority staff at the Blue Lake Elementary School to scope out the installation and testing of a mini-split heat pump system.  The RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan indicated that use of heat pumps could be a cost effective way to utilize local renewable energy resources to meet heating demands while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  However, heat pump performance can vary significantly in different climates, so the strategic plan recommended conducting a heat pump pilot study to examine performance characteristics in the Humboldt climate.  Blue Lake Elementary will receive one or two heat pump systems to be installed in individual classrooms. These systems will be equipped with monitoring instruments. At the same time, we will measure the energy consumption and performance of the small natural gas furnaces that currently provide heat to these classrooms. This will allow us to evaluate the energy efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and greenhouse gas impacts associated with the heat pump systems compared to conventional heating systems. This information can then be used to inform decisions about the potential future installation of heat pump systems throughout the county.

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.

Moving Forward with the RePower Humboldt Plan

Last spring, SERC worked with the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) to release the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan. The plan lays out long-term strategies and near-term implementation measures that can lead Humboldt toward a more sustainable energy future. Less than a year from the completion of that planning effort, we’re pleased to report that a substantial number of the implementation measures are already under way, and SERC is actively involved in several of them.

  • There are multiple efforts to utilize forest-based biomass resources in an ecologically sensitive and cost-effective manner.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy is funding a study to revisit the idea of a pilot-scale wave energy facility offshore from Humboldt Bay.
  • Locals and developers are still interested in harnessing wind and run-of-the-river hydro resources throughout the region.
  • SERC is working with RCEA to complete a regional plan to support the adoption of electric vehicles.
  • On the energy demand side of the equation, the efficiency programs at RCEA continue to grow and reach more local residents, businesses and schools.
  • RCEA will soon implement a heat pump pilot study in the City of Blue Lake.

While not exhaustive, this list makes it clear that our local community is serious about pursuing the vision articulated in the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan, and that we already have the momentum to make substantial progress over the coming years!

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.

A Message from the Director

AJ headshot 3On April 5th, SERC hosted the first meeting of its new Advisory Board. The formation of the board represents an important milestone for our center. The board is a dynamic group with deep experience in the clean energy sector, and they are well positioned to help us enhance our ability to achieve our mission of promoting clean and renewable energy.

If renewable energy is to make a difference in addressing the major environmental problems of our times, it must continue to move from the margins into the mainstream. During the board meeting, the SERC team reported on the recently completed RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan, which confirms that Humboldt County is well positioned to play a leading role in this effort. As senior research engineer Jim Zoellick reports in this issue, the strategic plan includes an analysis of the potential to dramatically scale up the use of renewable energy in Humboldt County.

The results are interesting and promising. They indicate that Humboldt County can meet 75% or more of its electricity needs and a substantial percentage of its transportation and heating requirements by 2030 using renewable energy at only a modest increase in cost. Meeting these targets would result in reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are on the order of 35% to 45% relative to the expected business-as-usual trajectory.

If successful, an effort to achieve these goals would have significance that goes well beyond Humboldt County. Back in 2009, President Obama set a target of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 83% by 2050 (relative to 2005 baseline emissions).  For the country to have a chance to meet that target, some regions need to lead the way by achieving substantial reductions much earlier. The challenge is a big one, and Humboldt County has the renewable energy resource base, prior track record, and environmental ethic to play a leadership role. The RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan provides a vision and a roadmap that we can use to move forward. And, as Jim explains, some next step activities are already underway in the form of a CEC funded project involving collaboration between SERC, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, and the Blue Lake Rancheria.

The board also heard about SERC’s education and outreach work. Over the past year, SERC’s clean energy education programs have reached over 1,000 students and community members. In addition to activities in schools and university classes, SERC provides mentorship to students working to reduce the environmental impact of energy use on the Humboldt State campus through projects funded by the Humboldt Energy Independence Fund (HEIF).  In this issue, senior research engineer Richard Engel writes about our work to support HEIF projects, one of the latest efforts in SERC’s longstanding tradition of training and mentoring students.

The board was very interested in SERC’s international project portfolio, including our work in support of quality assurance for off-grid lighting in Africa and Asia.  In this newsletter, research engineer Kristen Radecsky recounts the recent successful technical training workshop that she helped lead for the Solar Lighting Laboratory at TERI University in New Delhi, India. This work is part of a broader effort associated with the Lighting Asia and Lighting Africa initiatives to develop a network of laboratories which can evaluate the quality and performance of off-grid lighting and energy systems that provide critical energy services to people in rural areas of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.

Also in this issue, Richard reports about a new international project related to the use of solar powered mini-grids for rural electrification in India. The effort involves collaboration with partners including E3 and Black & Veatch.

I will close by extending a special thanks to our Advisory Board for taking the time to serve on our behalf. It was a pleasure having them here at SERC, and I look forward to more productive sessions over the coming years. Goodbye until next time.

RePowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy

repower-banner

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).