Massive Biomass ?  

Posted by Big Gav

PhysOrg has an article on British plans to build the biggest biomass plant in the world. Somewhat bizarrely, the wood chip fuel for it is expected to come from the US and Canada.

The 350-megawatt wood chip-fuelled electricity generating plant will be sited in the industrial town of Port Talbot on the south Wales coast. It will cost 400 million pounds (830 million dollars, 560 million euros) to construct.

"This will be the biggest biomass plant in the world, generating enough clean energy to power half the homes in Wales," Hutton said in a statement. "It joins eight major renewables projects already given the green light in the past 12 months alone and is another important step towards the low carbon economy envisaged by the Prime Minister (Gordon Brown)."

The plant is expected to contribute about 70 percent of the Welsh Assembly's 2010 renewable energy target, and have a 25-year lifetime. It will create around 150 new jobs. The wood chip fuel, to be burnt around the clock, is expected to come from sustainable sources in the United States and Canada. The station will burn around three million tonnes per year.

There has been a local campaign against the proposal, with 7,000 people signing a petition. Neil Crumpton, energy spokesman for Friends of the Earth, told AFP the group was in favour of biomass projects but did not support this one due to its location. Even if there was little pollution, the area around the site already suffered from above average levels, he said, adding that the plant would only produce electricity, while similar stations produce heating as well.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK's science spokesman, also lamented the fact it would not produce heating too and expressed concerns about the wood being transported over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Swedish town of Vaxjo is also using biomass / wood chips as the primary mechanism for reducing emissions. In their case, the wood chips and waste are locally produced and the ash is returned to the forests, which makes the process sound a lot more sustainable.
When this quiet city in southern Sweden decided in 1996 to wean itself off fossil fuels, many people doubted the ambitious goal would have any impact beyond the town limits. Today, however, Vaxjo is attracting a green pilgrimage of politicians, scientists and business leaders from as far away as the United States and North Korea seeking inspiration from a city program that has allowed it to cut CO2 emissions 30 percent since 1993.

Vaxjo is a pioneer in a growing movement in dozens of European cities, large and small, that aren't waiting for national or international measures aimed at curbing climate change.

From London's congestion charge to Paris' city bike program and Barcelona's solar power campaign, initiatives taken at the local level are being introduced across the continent — often influencing national policies instead of the other way around.

"People used to ask: Isn't it better to do this at a national or international level?" said Henrik Johansson, environmental controller in Vaxjo, a city of 78,000 on the shores of Lake Helga, surrounded by thick pine forest in the heart of Smaland province. "We want to show everyone else that you can accomplish a lot at the local level." ...

In Vaxjo, (pronounced VECK-shur), the vast majority of emissions cuts have been achieved at the city's heating and power plant, which replaced oil with wood chips from local sawmills as its main source of fuel. Ashes from the furnace are returned to the forest as nutrients.

"This is the best fir in Sweden," said plant manager Ulf Johnsson, scooping up a fistful of wood chips from a giant heap outside the factory.

He had just led Michael Wood, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden, on a guided tour of the facility, which is considered state of the art. Not only does it generate electricity, but the water that is warmed up in the process of cooling the plant is used to heat homes and offices in Vaxjo.

A similar but much larger system is in place in Copenhagen, Denmark's capital, where waste heat from incineration and combined heat and power plants is pumped through a purpose-built 800-mile network of pipes to 97 percent of city.

Copenhagen is often cited as a climate pioneer among European cities. It cut CO2 emissions by 187,600 tons annually in the late 1990s by switching from coal to natural gas and biofuels at its energy plants. Its goal is to reduce emissions by 35 percent by 2010, compared to 1990 levels, even more ambitious than Denmark's national target of 21 percent cuts under the Kyoto accord.

In 1995, Copenhagen became one of the first European capitals to introduce a public bicycle service that lets people pick up and return bikes at dozens of stations citywide for a small fee. Similar initiatives have since taken root in Paris and several other European cities. Next, Copenhagen plans to spend about $38 million on various initiatives to get more residents to use bicycles instead of cars.

Transport is one of the hardest areas for local leaders to control since traffic is not confined to a single city. Without stronger national policies promoting biofuels over gasoline, Vaxjo, for one, will never reach its long-term target of becoming free of fossil fuels. But it's doing what it can locally. So-called green cars running on biofuels park for free anywhere in the city. About one-fifth of the city's own fleet runs on biogas produced at the local sewage treatment plant.

Vaxjo has also invested in energy efficiency, from the light bulbs used in street lights to a new residential area with Europe's tallest all-wood apartment buildings. Wood requires less energy to produce than steel or concrete, and also less transportation since Vaxjo is in the middle of forests.

Although Vaxjo is tiny by comparison, the C40 group, including major metropolitan centers such as New York, Mexico City and Tokyo, has been impressed by the city's progress and uses it as an example of "best practices" around the world.

While the UK plant mentioned earlier seems to be a mixed blessing, it appears to be part of Gordon Brown's plans to get the UK ready to make deeper carbon emissions cuts.
Gordon Brown today promised to make Britain a world leader in the new "technological revolution" required to beat global warming as he pledged to raise the bar on cutting carbon emissions by 2050.

The prime minister used his first major speech on the environment to make clear he is ready to consider increasing the government's target of a 60% cut in Britain's carbon emissions by 2050 to 80%, if recommended by the new independent committee on climate change. "Tackling climate change represents the greatest of challenges to the world; it is also the greatest of opportunities for Britain," Brown said. "We now have the opportunity to play a leading role in taking the world towards a low-carbon future."

Addressing an audience at the Foreign Press Association, the prime minister went on to set out the economic case for urgent action to tackle climate change both domestically and internationally, with the aim of holding the rise in the average global temperature to no more than 2C.

He referred to apocalyptic predictions in the latest report from the International Energy Agency, which show that on current trends world energy demand will be 50% higher and global emissions 60% higher in 2030 than today.

This would lead to temperature increases of four degrees by the end of the century and sea levels rising by 60cm, with catastrophic consequences, particularly for least developed countries that have so far done little to contribute to climate change.

The prime minister, therefore, demanded action on an international front, appealing to all nations to agree on a post-2012 framework at December's UN climate change conference in Bali, which would include binding emissions caps for all developed countries. "I know this means facing up to hard choices and taking tough decisions," he said. "That means governing, not gimmickry."

The Guardian has another look at Brown's plans, asking "Has Brown finally become a bright-green revolutionary?".
So here is Gordon Brown's greatest change yet - from brown Gordon to bright-green Gordon. Yesterday's speech heralded a seismic change of attitude. If Britain hits these targets for renewable energy and CO2 emissions, it will be a near miracle.

"This time he really gets it," said Greenpeace executive director John Sauven, who was there to hear the speech. "But can he deliver?" Others, too, ask if he understands that a new dirigiste industrial strategy needs to match his high rhetoric about a "fourth technological revolution". Brown promised change on an epic scale, to match the Marshall plan that rebuilt Europe after the second world war. The Stern report warned the economic impact of climate change would be like world war and the Depression rolled into one. Does Brown realise this can't be done by consulting committees or just by markets and trading systems? He promised thousands of green jobs and environmental apprenticeships to upskill the workforce, but Germany only achieved 10 times our windpower and 300 times our solar power by direct intervention, including guaranteeing electricity prices for secure investment in new technologies. Brown resists intervention in markets, but industry needs a kickstart.

So far Labour's record has been dismal, letting carbon emissions rise by 2%. Renewable energy reached just a pathetic 2%: in the EU, only Malta has less. Imminent planet meltdown never seemed to excite Tony Blair as much as reorganising schools out of local authorities or hospitals out of the NHS. That was odd, considering his other messianic, big-picture tendencies. Brown always seemed cool on global warming - politically, it was an obstacle to his social and economic priorities.

So what's the change? At first glance, it might not look much. He is "only" re-committing to targets agreed in March by the EU. But just look at that extra-ordinary agreement. By 2020, Europe must cut carbon emissions by 20%, generate 20% of its energy from renewables and improve energy efficiency by 20%. That is a mammoth task.

A document leaked to the Guardian showed officials cunningly sliding out of Britain's share in all this, weaselling on the statistics. Why would they do that? Because, they say, the 20% renewable target was plucked out of the air by Angela Merkel, due to internal angst over nuclear power. Blair signed up to it in demob mode. Whitehall officials were bound to send up alarm signals: there had been no feasibility study, no cost benefit analysis, no one knows if it can be done. In January, each country will be told what their share of the target is - Britain must produce between 10% and 15% of its energy from renewables by 2020. If it doesn't sound much, that's up to a 7.5-fold increase in a short time. "Superhuman" effort will be required, said one adviser: it means 40% of our electricity must come from renewables.

Foreign Policy has an interesting interview with the managing director of oil and gas resources from Oppenheimer & Co, Fedel Gheit - "Seven Questions: The Price of Fear" - in his version of events, the oil price is being manipulated by the large financial players, rather than being a symptom of peak oil.
Foreign Policy: So, in other words, our own fear is driving up the price of oil?

FG: Well, if you are a commodity trader, you want to do your best to push the commodity price in the direction that you forecast. And obviously, when you have a lot of financial players making bets on much higher oil prices, they would like to see a self-fulfilling prophecy. They want to see oil prices reach the level that they put the bet on. So, they can spread rumors. And if the glass is half empty or half full, they will say it's empty.

To my knowledge, there is no oil shortage. Any willing buyers will not have a problem finding oil. Global inventories are over 4 billion barrels. In simple math, that is the equivalent of all the oil produced in the Middle East for six months. So, the fear premium, in my view, is totally exaggerated; it's not justified by logic or market fundamentals. Again, it's very difficult to quantify fear. But that is the psychological factor, in my view, that is bringing oil prices to these unprecedented levels. For instance, I don't believe that Iran is going to cut oil exports, because Iran needs the revenue more than the world needs Iran's oil. We have to be logical in assessing the risk. And obviously, financial players want to exaggerate the situation so that the risk premium increases and they make more money. ...

Foregin Policy: Everyone is talking about increased demand from India and China, but the United States remains by far the world's biggest oil importer. How big a factor in the price of oil is U.S . demand going forward, in light of recent talk of a coming slowdown in the U.S. economy from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and others?

FG: It's very hard for me or anybody to think that we can maintain our level of growth with zero or a low level of inflation and have $100 oil. People who think this way are really daydreaming. It doesn't happen. By excluding food and energy [from core inflation figures], we are really misleading people. From the gas pump to the supermarket to the department store, everything that you bought a year ago would cost you more today. I'm not saying it's only energy that is causing this, but energy is a major component of the cost increase because it impacts everything we do. High oil prices will eventually slow down economic growth, if they haven't already, and I believe they will start pushing inflation higher.

I do believe that there is a role for the U.S. government to play here, and that the government should be able to correct wrongdoing. The oil markets have been left almost unguarded. And I do believe that the financial institutions, while making billions of dollars in profits, are wrecking global economic growth. The same bubble that happened in housing and tech stocks will come back and haunt us. The U.S. government has an obligation to reign in some of this excessive speculation. Otherwise, there's going to be a very bad ending.

Gilles at Swans has some thoughts about the Iranian Conundrum.
WANT TO SOLVE THE IRANIAN CONUNDRUM? I'm no energy specialist and my decade-long foray in the oil & gas industry certainly does not an expert make. There are many sites that present serious information on energy issues ... and thanks to them I've learned enough to debunk the so-called Iranian Crisis, and found out that there are ample solutions to it, besides bombing yet another country to smithereens. Of course, a positive approach would entail that the US Establishment and its European cousins refrain from their favorite strategic tool -- regime change -- and learn to respect the sacrosanct property rights (how more capitalist could I be!?!) of the Iranian nation -- their oil and gas, which is what this sorry story of "bomb, bomb, bomb," is once again all about. There are several carrots, just on the energy side, that could be offered to the Iranian government.

BEFORE REVIEWING THEM QUICKLY (they'd deserve much deeper analysis), let's clear one misconception. People who assail the bad imperialists (I am one of those people) that all over the world, through their governments and their docile propagandists and gatekeepers (aka, MSM and think tanks), accuse Iran of wanting to develop nuclear power in order to build a nuclear bomb program, do not get it. Iranian leaders may or may not wish to have their own nuclear deterrent, and they certainly are entitled to peaceful nuclear energy, but these are moot and incorrect lines of reasoning. First, Iran ought not to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program because nuclear energy, of which I am a strong proponent (but of a different sort -- see below), is an energy whose radioactive waste we do not know how to handle and is perilously dangerous to the survival of the commons in the long term. Second, if the past is any indication of the present or the future, there is a sound basis to believe -- again correctly or not -- that Iran will want a nuclear deterrent and in so doing will launch a race among other countries in the region to develop their own nuclear capabilities (cf. Egypt's recent decision to develop "nuclear energy"). We do not need more nuclear powers. We need fewer. We need none; and that includes Israel, of course, and the U.S., and France, et al.

THE BASIS for believing that Iran's goal is indeed about acquiring nuclear weapons rests in the past. Electrical nuclear energy is a byproduct of the fission process, whose only ambition has always been the creation of that most awful tool of destruction, even annihilation, ever devised. With the only exception of Japan, which could produce these weapons at a moment notice, all the countries that developed that technology had first and foremost nuclear weapons in mind. Take a look at the list of states with nuclear weapons. Peaceful nuclear energy was not on the designing table ever. Even Canada, which has no nuclear weapons arsenal as she has made the choice to depend upon the US nuclear umbrella, was party to the Manhattan Project, and is a strong proponent of nuclear energy. Canada is the largest producer of uranium in the world and detains about one-third of worldwide uranium deposits. Canada is shamefully responsible for the Indian nuclear program that led to "Smiling Buddha" in 1974 and "Operation Shakti" in 1998, which in turn led Pakistan to her first nuclear tests, and to further proliferation. Once the genie is out of the bottle we seem incapable of locking it back in and we cannot imagine that a country whose leaders are deemed irrational and fanatics is actually wanting to honestly harness nuclear power for peaceful purposes. The simplistic thinking becomes: Hey, since we've done it, they'll do it too.

WHETHER IRAN DOES GET THE BOMB or not is another false choice. Iran ought not develop a nuclear energy program, whether it's a peaceful one or not, because it's the wrong path for the commons; not because we happen not to like their leaders. Iran should be assured that besides abandoning our dreams of regime change and our relentless saber-rattling, we are willing to work earnestly to abolish these terrible weapons (instead of creating a new generation of them), and to develop new sources of energy within an international framework in and from which all countries would be able to participate and to benefit. Absent this kind of fundamental change in approach, not just vis-à-vis Iran, but the entire nuclear energy challenge, the path ahead will lie into radioactive wastes of our own making and ultimately demise. Iran is not the problem. Nuclear energy as conceived to be a destroyer of life is.

KEEP IN MIND that when you create an enemy, you also become his enemy -- a lose-lose proposition, which in the nuclear age may well result with catastrophic consequences. We have to embrace a paradigm shift. Forget about the fabricated demons and focus on the real demons -- things like resource depletion, pollution, global warming, poverty, etc., and whether some like it or not the growing demand of energy will last for decades. If the overuse of fossil fuels is a climate killer, nuclear energy a radioactive killer, competition for depleting resources a war killer, what are we left with, at least rationally?

I KNOW OF NO MAGIC POTION to change societal behaviors, but from an energy perspective the prospects are not as gloomy as the prophets of doom and the profiteers would want us to believe. Several old and new technologies are in the pipeline, from nuclear energy based on thorium rather than uranium, geothermal power, wind, and solar thermal energy. Look at the work done by The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation that wants to harness the sun in the Sahara desert and create a super electrical grid between Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Similar projects are being studied and developed in the U.S. Geothermal power provides about 26% of energy consumption in Iceland. The largest geothermal field in the world, located in Lake County, north of San Francisco, supplies almost 800,000 homes with their energy needs.

BUT, TO STAY WITHIN THE IRANIAN QUESTION, thorium could be used as an alternative to uranium to feed nuclear reactors. Thorium is three times as abundant on earth than uranium and far less radioactive. It cannot be used for the production of nuclear weapons. It can produce 250 times more energy than uranium per unit of weight, according to Professor Egil Lillestol of the Institute of Physics and Technology at the University of Bergen. The U.S. experimented with thorium at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s, but abandoned the research for lack of funding in 1976. In 2004, the U.S. buried its thorium reserves in the Nevada desert -- over 3,200 metric tones. According to some reports, that amount would cover America's energy needs for two years. France is working on developing a nuclear plant fueled with thorium. India hopes to phase out her civilian nuclear energy based on uranium and replace it with thorium. Problem is Mr. Bush cannot pronounce "nuclear" and Th is not part of his vocabulary.

SERIOUSLY AND SADLY, the made-up Iranian Crisis has more to do with once again control of oil and greed than with the nuclear issue. Any rational participant to the blinded debate would offer Iran the incentive to be a part of an international consortium -- assuming we wanted to build one -- that would research and develop alternative sources of renewal energies. It's there for the taking, but we will keep using the violent means that never work and carry on creating chaos for the much-heralded profits of the happy few. Lead goes up. Another war on the horizon, more speculation in the making, the Forbes 400 will get beefier, the Death Tax will remain on the agenda... Meanwhile, working people do keep sending their hard-earned money up the top of the food chain and their sons and daughters to the meat grinder. Since no one cares, why should I?

Links:

* MSNBC - Rockefeller Christmas tree gets green makeover
* Physorg - The power of multiples: Connecting wind farms can make a more reliable - and cheaper - power source
* After Gutenberg - ProBioGas
* Technology Review - Making Hydrogen from Leftovers
* SMH - Britain opens first bioethanol plant. Sugar beet based.
* Celsias - Nanosolar’s Thin Film Breakthrough - Solar Now Cheaper than Coal
* Energy Current - Petratherm awarded geothermal leases in Spain
* The Hindu - Glitnir, Bhilwara to set up geothermal plants in India, Nepal
* Upstream Online - Russians plan to use nuclear to power Shtokman
* The Australian - Shell eyes huge Siberian gas fields
* Tom Paine - Shall We Help Big Oil Get Bigger?
* Time - So maybe those peak oil people weren't crazy after all
* Time - New Oil Crisis: An Engineer Shortage. Thankfully engineers are a renewable resource.
* Dallas Morning News - Reaching our peak oil supply
* David Strahan - $100 oil: the terrible truth
* Peak Oil Passnotes - Peak Oil Passnotes: Here's My Tupi's Worth
* NPR - Military's Oil Needs Not Deterred by Price Spike
* Greg Palast - War Paint and Lawyers: Rainforest Indians versus Big Oil
* Daily Telegraph - Apocalyptic vision of a post-fossil fuel world
* Grist - Environmentalism and the future of coal, part one
* AFP - Indonesia's forests, a precious resource in climate change fight?
* Grist - Kucinich, Clinton, and Edwards on climate and energy
* Nashua Telegraph - Dennis Kucinich blasts Democratic leadership, says the vow from his party's leadership is "total fraud"
* Huffington Post - Elizabeth Kucinich: My Husband Would "Absolutely" Consider Running With Ron Paul
* Washinton Post - lib•er•tar•ian
* Milk And Cookies - Kucinich, Dean, and Biden: Peak Oil, Ron Paul, and 9/11
* Past Peak - What Kucinich Should Do
* Past Peak - "We Have To Get Smart Fast"
* Cryptogon - Mobile Phone Companies Provide Real Time Tracking Information to Feds; Probable Cause Optional
* RI - America Ate My Brain (Part One). I hope he's not going to trash Kucinich as well as Ron Paul...

3 comments

Why "somewhat bizarrely," if the UK doesn't offer comparable quantity/price of wood chips? Sure, in an ideal world it would be nice to have all power plants and fuel sources close together, but bulk ocean transport is pretty cheap and efficient, and the net is still presumably better than fossil carbon.

I guess I'm just accustomed to renewable energy plants harnessing local energy sources, not adopting the traditional model of shipping in fuel from far away.

But you're right - this is an entirely practical way of generating power - it just won't be as energy efficient as the Swedish model.

Yes, good old UK. Keep talking up the renewables, whilst maintaining hare-brained schemes to "support" them that actually seem to hinder them. And yes, let's have lots of biomass electricity plants that are 30% efficient, while the rest of Europe builds biomass CHP that's 80-90% efficient. Though we've one of the biggest sustainable energy talking shops in the world, we're as inept as ever when it comes to actually doing things!

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