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Biocoal Options

A new future for small coal-fired plants.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2010

Considering Alternatives

The 12,000 MW of small coal units in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region are a modest but important piece of the United States energy and emissions picture. The alternatives for dealing with the economic and environmental challenges at these units are very limited. Crop-waste biocoal has the potential to change this situation substantially for the better. This resource could save on the order of $1 billion or more per year over the typical coal alternative on a pure economic basis, ignoring CO 2 and REC considerations. If such environmental considerations are factored in, either voluntarily or through mandates, the savings could be billions of dollars over the typical natural gas and raw biomass alternatives.

Given these potential benefits, the role of crop-waste biocoal likely will increase in the natural course of events. Nevertheless, there are some strategy and policy changes could help accelerate this process and make it smoother.

First, the organizations responsible for managing these small coal units—private companies, academic institutions, and government agencies—should begin thinking more broadly about the available alternatives. In many cases, little attention is being paid to alternatives at these units. Where attention is being paid, wood-based biomass is sometimes considered but certainly not crop-waste biocoal. Given the time frames involved, it isn’t too early to change this mindset. Any evaluation of alternatives for these units should consider crop-waste biocoal.

Second, the organizations responsible for supplying fuel to these small coal units should begin thinking more broadly about the scope of their services. These businesses include coal companies, agricultural product companies, transportation companies and others involved in the fuel supply chain. All could play an important role in the crop-waste biocoal market, and many of them are just barely aware of its potential.

Third, the governmental agencies and non-profit organizations that represent consumers or the public at large should establish clearer and more favorable positions with respect to crop-waste biocoal. These positions are reflected both in regulations from state and federal regulatory agencies, as well as public relations and marketing messages from public interest groups. One good example of the need for clarification is the argument over biomass sustainability. It would help the market immensely if a suitable government agency or a non-profit organization assumed the task of certifying crop-waste biocoal (or other forms of biomass) as carbon neutral and green, where appropriate.

With these changes, the economic and environmental benefits of biocoal will arrive sooner rather than later.



1. EPA, “U.S. GHG Inventory 2010,” Environmental Protection Agency.

2. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Existing Electric Generating Units in the United States,” U.S. Department of Energy, 2008.

3 Energy Information Administration, “Annual Energy Outlook 2010,” Department of Energy, May 11, 2010.

4. Milbrandt, A., A Geographic Perspective on the Current Biomass Resource Availability in the United States , NREL/TP-560-39181, December 2005.

5. Zia Haq, “Biomass for Electricity Generation,” EIA.