Commercialization of torrefaction benefits the environment, utility rate payers, and rural communities by replacing coal with clean fuel.
Both air quality and the environmental health of water resources in forest, rangeland and farms near where coal is replaced by biomass will be improved by a reduction in coal-fired power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and other toxic metals present in the coal and coal ash. Yes, the burning of biomass produces carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. However, trees take up carbon dioxide from the air while they are growing and then return it to the air when they are burned, part of the natural carbon cycle of the earth and causing no net increase. When biomass replaces coal, nitrogen oxides emissions are 30% lower. When the role of renewable biomass in the carbon cycle is considered, carbon dioxide emissions that result from replacing or co-firing biomass with coal are lower than those from burning coal alone.
In Oregon and much of western U.S. and Canada, forests are overcrowded and unhealthy. Deadly insect outbursts across the West affected 762,000 acres in Oregon alone in 2009. As insect-killed trees fall, dead wood accumulates, fueling the potential for severe fires. Then, when fires do occur, the fire-weakened trees become more susceptible to attack by insects and disease.
Both public and private organizations are seeking to restore threatened forests through restoration efforts such as thinning, mechanical treatment or prescribed burns. Thinning these forests and removing biomass for densified fuel production will improve forest health, increase tree growth, increase resiliency to fire, insects, and disease; protect existing large old tree structure and watershed function; and enhance habitat for focal species. However, these restoration efforts are costly. And, unfortunately, the slash produced from these operations has little economic value. Prescribed burns and slash burning create large amounts of smoke and essentially “waste” the energy value of the slash.
HM3 Energy’s torrefied biomass production creates a new market for biomass, supporting active forest management.
Torrefaction Benefits the Economy
Because torrefied biomass handles just like coal, existing coal-fired power plants don’t need to make modifications to start co-firing or completely replacing their coal with cleaner torrefied biomass. That means utilities can continue using their existing coal-fired plants instead of building new gas-fired plants. This avoids the unnecessary environmental cost and cost to ratepayers that construction of new plants creates.
And commercialization of torrefaction includes very long-term social, economic and environmental benefits and impacts for rural U.S. timber communities. Strong, steady demand by a utility for torrefied biomass produced by woody biomass within a 50 mile radius of just one timber community would produce 62 sustainable jobs (biomass collection, transport and plant operation and maintenance). Duplicated close to twenty times in Oregon alone, there would be a huge revitalization of rural timber communities that once relied exclusively on the harvesting of large diameter logs for income and could now concentrate on forest restoration.