The Integrated Biorefinery: the (re) rise of BioPower

June 15, 2011 |

New technologies and diversified feedstocks are turning biomass power generation from ugly stepchild to star

Back in the day, most projects that refined biomass were single feedstock, single product stream monsters. US plants, for example, generally produced ethanol and feed grains from corn, or biodiesel and glycerine from soybeans. When feedstock prices were low, and fuel prices high, all was well – plants were constructed like weeds.

The collapse of the global biodiesel market, and bankruptcies in the US ethanol industry, had as much to do with the facilities as rising feedstock and falling fuel prices.  Diversification is the accepted strategy for coping with changing conditions, but the industry was generally locked in by its own technology.

Much has changed. Today, the industry routinely utilizes dozens of feedstocks – fats, oils, greases, corn stover and cobs, bagasse, switchgrass and miscanthus, jatropha, camelina, and energy canes – in addition to traditional crops like sugarcane, corn, soybeans, rapeseed and cassava.


Diversification has come to the product side as well. The industry produces diesel, gasoline, jet fuel, two flavors of butanol, as well as traditional biodiesel and ethanol – not to mention a host of organic acids, chemicals and bio-based products.

One of the beneficiaries in all this diversification will be bio-power. Generally, the production of electrons from combusting biomass – while an important and growing industry – has represented a fairly low-value use of biomass. The low conversion efficiencies – not to mention by-products such as soot – have made bio-power economically effective only in areas affected by scarcity of alternatives, and where renewable energy mandates dictate an expansion of renewables and pass cost increases on to consumers.

Most of the discussion about renewable power revolves around solar and wind energy, which makes sense, because they have two factors driving them. One, they are sexy, highly renewable technologies. Second, they have powerful Silicon Valley venture capitalist barons pushing awareness.

Three trends are changing options. First of all, the rise of co-firing (burning biomass alongside coal for power generation), as a low-cost means of increasing renewable content in power generation. Second, the rise in alternative feedstocks – particularly the feasibility of adding anaerobic digesters for  power generation at meat and dairy operations. Third, the rise of the integrated biorefinery – a facility that produces both power and fuel. The Ineos BIO project under construction in Florida is an example – but Brazil is replete with sugarcane mills that produce power for mill operations (as well as supplying to the grid) in addition to sugar and ethanol production.

Small-scale units are making power production more feasible in farm operations – while more sophisticated integrated biorefineries are routinely including power generation among their options.

In today’s Digest, we look at some of the latest developments in increasing the distribution and viability of biopower generation – in the US, Brazil, Europe and Africa.

We’ll take a special look at a small biopower project in Brazil that combines renewable energy, in the form of biogas, with a unique connection to hydropower, and the rise of sustainable agriculture in what will shortly become the world’s fifth largest economic power. We’ll also look at a number of other hot projects around the globe in biopower. But our lead is “Brazil is on the rise, and here’s a reason why.”

The Rise of BioPower in Brazil

Fifty miles north of the massive Itaipu hydropower project in southeastern Brazil, Pedro Rittenmeyer is a fifty-two year old small farmer, raising 40 animals, including 18 cows, on a 24 hectare small farm, producing 200 liters of milk per day. He’s of German descent, as are so many families of the region. In fact, one local wag once said, “if you find a good plantation, you’ll find a good German from the south working on it.” The farm is run by just he and wife now – the children have gone off and taken jobs in the cities.

A few years ago, he was a violator. Overrun by animal waste, like many small farmers, that had nowhere to go, it was being dumped all throughout the region into rivers, and onto fields. Today, Pedro has gone from violator to picture postcard for sustainable agriculture.

The difference? He joined with 33 other small farmers in a sustainable co-operative, building anaerobic digester units to produce methane from their animal slurries, and a pipeline to move the biogas to a central generator that will provide power the community, to the grid, thermal energy for local agriculture, and methane for transportation fuel. It’s residue is a valuable fertilizer which has been improving soil quality.

For Pedro, who has invested $1500 to date in the system and will not be connected to the pipeline for several months, the results are seen in a simpler, more direct context than just kilowatts produced.

“We had too many flies,” he explains. “There was mud, dung, everywhere, and it all eventually flowed to the river. Today, the quality of life is better. The land is cleaner, and the grass is better. The milk I produce is higher quality, and I get better prices for it. It’s something extraordinary, turning my problem into something that changes attitudes, changes behaviors, and changes the milk.”

For Pedro Kohler, the opportunity went beyond his own farm.

Not all that far from the Rittenmeyer farm, Pedro Kohler was a small farmer as well, ]self-taught on the subject of biogas and anaerobic digesters. He had his entire farm powered on biogas when his self-funded, self-designed project came to the attention of Itaipu, and the renewable energy officials in the local community.

One thing they noticed right away. Kohler had invented a key piece of safe, simple technology, easy to operate, that turned small farms into good prospects for biogas. He developed a rigid-box digester unit, which he has subsequently patented. He now has formed a fast-growing company, BioKohler, which is consulting on the entire local project, as well as other projects for small farms around the country.

The local project, which Pedro is consulting on, and is funded by the local municipality and the regional development funds from the Itaipu hydroelectric project, will generate enough power, when the pipeline is completed, for the 105 homes in the local area, an additional 250 homes when the project is connected to a grid, or heat power for corn drying.

In a few months, a module will be installed to produce compressed renewable biogas for road transport, that will be used to power local trucks and other farm vehicles over time.

Not to overlook corn drying. Project coordinator Cicero Bley estimated that 25 percent of the cost of corn is in the transportation of corn to central processors for drying. Now, the corn stays local.

The total project works well enough on the numbers, producing 240,000 Kwh per year from the 34 participants, for a total community investment of $1.2 million, including the digesters, the 25 km of pipeline, the generators and thermal systems. So there’s payback in the form of the power alone, and the increased profit from farming (e.g. higher milk prices, and reduced corn costs).

Interestingly, the project has drawn interest from across Brazil, and there have been applications from large farmers in the area to join to biogas co-operative. Large farmers will be able to realize additional income of up to $3000 per month from biogas sales and fertilizer savings alone. So, a small farm project may well “go big”.

Elsewhere in BioPower

In Georgia, Vega Biofuels reported that their bio-coal manufacturing plant will be located in Crisp County. The final decision was made to locate the manufacturing facility in Cordele, GA after learning that the Crisp County/Cordele Industrial Development Authority and Intermodal Services, Inc. were about to complete construction on the new Cordele Inland Port that will service the Port of Savannah, one of the South’s largest international shipping ports.  Shipping is a large component of Vega’s business and significantly affects the price the Company can charge for its products. Bio-coal is much cheaper to ship than other forms of alternative energy such as fuel pellets.  Target markets for the Company’s products are power plants around the world that face mandates to increase biomass usage in their coal burning power plants. Firing bio-coal in traditional coal power plants will not require any retrofitting of existing plants.

In the UK, D1 Oils is looking tempting to investors again with its stocks shooting up more than 40% in a single day based on the announcement that Siemens will use D1’s CJO biodiesel to power turbines on a high speed ferry, one of three ‘potentially significant’ trials with multinationals to be held in the near future. A ‘fast moving consumer goods’ business will use the oil to generate power while a ‘leading chemicals company’ will use the oil for ‘bio-based products.’

In Brazil, Dedini is now offering add-on portions for existing plants where they can break down vinasse into biogas and biomethane. Each have applications as fuel for the mill’s steam-powered boilers that generate electricity, which would allow mills to use bagasse that is normally burned for another purpose. Biomethane can also be used for vehicles in Brazil that are fixed to run on natural gas, easily applicable to tractors and semi-trucks used in and around cane mills.

In Washington, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tim Johnson introduced the Securing America’s Future with Energy and Sustainable Technologies (SAFEST) Act, which according to Senator Johnson “invests in jobs on the farm and in manufacturing in America. It is the path to our energy future by investing in a range of renewable energy from biofuels to wind and importantly will provide incentives for infrastructure for renewables. This will prevent us going from importing oil to importing wind turbines and electric cars.”

The legislation will create incentives for biofuels infrastructure and deployment, extensions of ethanol and biodiesel tax credits, a 25 percent renewable electricity standard to take effect by 2025, a 1 percent energy-efficiency standard, and production targets for hybrid, electric, and flex-fuel vehicles. A similar bill was introduced in the previous Congress last July by the same co-sponsors. The bill has been endorsed by the National Farmers Union, Growth Energy, National Association of Energy Service Companies, American Soybean Association, Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the National Biodiesel Board.

In Ghana, the UNDP is helping India’s Abellon CleanEnergy to develop a major biomass energy project that will give jobs to 21,000 farmers and 4,000 others in the processing side. The project will grow biomass on 10,000 hectares of derelict land. By 2015 a power plant will be built in the Ashanti region that will power up to 100,000 homes, but until then the pellets will be exported to the US and Europe.

In Kenya, Gravitas Ltd, a Kenyan green energy firm announced plans to generate ethanol-based electricity by mid-2011 using hydrous ethanol. Gravitas has already launched an ethanol cooking stove and plans to open an ethanol bottling plant in Kisumu later this month. The ethanol is expected to replace use of the expensive and environmentally polluting kerosene.

In France, Thermya announced construction of three industrial biocoal production units using TORSPYD, a biomass torrefaction process developed by the company. The first unit will open this summer in Urnieta, in the Spanish Basque Country, under the supervision of Grupo Lantec, promoter and developer of the project. It will produce 20,000 tonnes of biocoal per year.

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