The Old King Coal Switcheroo: Coal’s out, biomass residues are in, the UK’s AEG’s got the tech, strategy in North Carolina

February 22, 2021 |

Today, I’d like to share a story of coal-switching, and Active Energy, (that’s a company, not a health supplement). They’ve recently raised several million, are in the midst of constructing a first commercial, and received a first order from PacifiCorp, the largest grid operator in the western United States. AEG’s CoalSwitch will be burnt at the Hunter Power Plant in Utah as part of the coal/biomass co-firing demonstration, supplying up to 900 tonnes of biomass feedstock from its Lumberton site for delivery by June. 

Lots of biomass power projects out there, why this one? It’s all about the feedstock. It’s residual wood, including bark and treetops/branches. sourced locally within North Carolina — the plant is in the aptly-named Lumberton, which generations of drivers along Interstate 95 will remember as the last town you stop in before you see the South of the Border roadside attraction complex in Hamer, SC. If you have more genteel interests, think of this as the exit you take when heading northbound towards a prized tee time at Pinehurst #2.

Bottom line, this is about waste materials from the lumber industry, that makes this about finding better uses for waste instead of toppling trees.

Let’s be clear about what bacteria do to bits of forest left lying around to rot. One of the reasons we have anaerobic digesters in the world making renewable natural gas is that the world contains lots of methanogens, and they turn forest waste into methane, too. That’s fugitive methane, a greenhouse gas hardly with peer for disturbing climates. Any time you can capture some waste and combust a pellet instead of letting it rot into methane, well, put it this way: if we were playing Climate Monopoly right now, you’d collect $200 and Advance to Go.

Nothing wrong with methane, just like there’s nothing wrong with justice. Fugitive methane, that’s like a Fugitive from Justice. That’s Breaking Bad.

So, we sure like games of Capture the Methane, this is a game of Prevent the Methane from Forming in the First Place. Only, no well-meaning government summer jobs to deserving teens to spend their summers sweeping up bark and gathering treetops in America’s forests. 

So here’s the idea. You start one business, a lumber mill. Provides jobs, gathers trees at a sustainable pace from the forest like any other lumber mill. You aggregate forest, only it’s a revenue stream, instead of a cost, it’s a valuable service to lumber customers instead of a make-work scheme. Now, you add in the pellet technology to handle the residues. No waste, no fugitive methane. There’s money from the high-value wood and money from the residues. 

Meanwhile, Hunter Power Plant can ease itself off coal with a 100% sustainable resource. Essentially, we’re using solar energy to grow biomass, harvesting molecules instead of electrons, we make a valuable material from good North Carolina wood, we keep methane from forming, and we return the CO2 to where we found it when we combust the pellet to make power as a second revenue stream. Rinse and repeat until the end of time.

Could get better. When we think of waste biomass in North Carolina, cluck cluck, think chicken litter. Now that we have meat without the cow and eggs without the chicken, out beleaguered poultry farmers could use a sustainability booster — think biomass to power, though the technology’s tougher, lot of calcium and ammonia in chicken droppings.

So, why not just use solar panels to make power? Two reasons, really. First, solar’s best where it doesn’t rain, and forests are a tell-take sign of excessive rain and cloud. That’s why there’s a forest instead of a desert. Second, there are no solar-based building materials, houses and yoga pants are not made out of electrons.

Latest from AEG? Work on the CoalSwitch plant continues to progress, with construction activity increasing early in the New Year. AEG and Player Design Inc. anticipate the commissioning of the first CoalSwitch Plant in Q2 2021. Additionally, AEG is also currently in discussions with a number of other prospective utility and power customers in the USA to test the CoalSwitch fuels as soon as practicable.

So, one to watch, one to like. You can even buy shares in this one, it’s treaded on the AIM out of London.

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