Bioenergy: how sustainable, how needed?

June 21, 2021 |

A new report from CCNY and a Bechtel/Drax partnership on biomass-to-energy but power from biomass into the spotlight — or, under the microscope.

News arrives from the UK that Bechtel and Drax have partnered to advance to construct new Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage power plants around the world. Drax is the largest decarbonization project in Europe having converted its power station near Selby in North Yorkshire to use sustainable biomass instead of coal.

By deploying BECCs’ vital negative emissions technology, Drax aims to go further, by becoming a carbon negative company by 2030. The partners said that scaling up BECCS sustainably over the coming decades will be critical to delivering the Paris Agreement climate targets and keeping the world on a pathway of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

Bechtel will focus its study on strategically important regions for new build BECCS plants, including North America and Western Europe, as well as reviewing how to optimize the design of a BECCS plant using state-of-the-art engineering to maximize efficiency, performance and cost.

The Drax backstory

Drax owns and operates a portfolio of renewable electricity generation assets in England and Scotland. The assets include the UK’s largest power station, based at Selby, North Yorkshire, which supplies five percent of the country’s electricity needs.

Having converted Drax Power Station to use sustainable biomass instead of coal it has become the UK’s biggest renewable power generator and the largest decarbonization project in Europe. It is also where Drax is piloting the ground-breaking negative emissions technology BECCS within its CCUS (Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage) Incubation Area.

Its pumped storage, hydro and energy from waste assets in Scotland include Cruachan Power Station – a flexible pumped storage facility within the hollowed-out mountain Ben Cruachan.

Drax’s pellet mills supply around 20% of the biomass used at its own power station in North Yorkshire, England to generate flexible, renewable power for the UK’s homes and businesses. The company overall has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030.

What is carbon-negative, again?

Negative emissions technologies remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they emit and are widely accepted by the world’s leading authorities on climate change as being essential in the fight against climate change.

Reaction from the stakeholders

Jamie Cochrane, Bechtel Manager of Energy Transition said: “Technological advancements have created new opportunities to improve how we bring power to communities worldwide. We are resolved to work with our customers on projects that deliver effective ways to contribute to a clean energy future. Tackling the big global challenges related to climate change is key to meeting aggressive environmental targets and we are proud to partner with Drax to optimize design and explore locations for the new generation of BECCS facilities.”

Jason Shipstone, Drax Group Chief Innovation Officer, said: “Negative emissions technologies such as BECCS are crucial in tackling the global climate crisis and at Drax we’re planning to retrofit this to our UK power station, demonstrating global climate leadership in the transformation of a former coal-fired power station. We’re interested in potential opportunities for exporting BECCS overseas, where Drax could help other countries take positive action to address the climate crisis and meet the Paris climate commitments by using innovative carbon capture technology to permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, MSW-to-energy gets a big boost from CCNY report

A study from CCNY chemical engineering professor Marco Castaldi found that Waste-to-Energy plays a key role as part of an environmentally sound system that includes full protection of human health and where post-recycled MSW supplies the energy to serve residential, commercial and industrial needs. Castaldi said that “significant confusion and misinformation” exists “regarding sustainably managing MSW using thermal conversion.”

Castaldi found that although landfills are the primary alternative to Waste-to-Energy, methane emitted by landfills is the second largest contributor to global climate change. New data show methane is even more damaging than previously thought. Every ton of waste processed in a WTE facility avoids a ton of CO2 equivalent emissions, when the Greenhouse Gas savings from recycling recovered metals is included. Over 700,000 tons of metal are recovered and recycled annually in WTE facilities. 

Castaldi added that “Independent studies show human health is not adversely affected by waste-to-energy. Further, WTE facilities in the U.S. and globally operate well within environmental standards. Data show their emissions are more than 70% below regulatory limits, except for NOx, which operates at 35 % below emissions limits.”

Addressing detractors, Castaldi said that “evaluating WTE in isolation is misleading as it leaves out the net effect of the environmental and energy impacts of landfilling the waste often great distances away from the source of generation. Reduce, reuse, and recycle are generally recognized by the public; however, there is less awareness and knowledge of recovery and the supporting technology. Further, there is significant misunderstanding of the energy recovery process.”

The market he said is robust. The study identified 76 waste-to-energy facilities in the US that process nearly 94,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day, producing enough energy to power the equivalent of 2.3 million homes. WTE is a $10 billion industry that employs approximately 6,000 American workers and is growing worldwide, Castaldi said.

A copy of the report can be found here.

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