Fuel-supply risks stunt the growth of biomass power.
Elizabeth Striano (firstname.lastname@example.org), principal of A Green Footprint LLC, is a writer and consultant on sustainability and the environment.
Biomass has enormous potential as a renewable source of power in the United States, and it might be poised for explosive growth.
Burning biomass fuel—either in stand-alone plants or in co-firing with other solid fuels—can help utilities meet state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Biomass is a particularly attractive option for meeting RPS mandates, because it produces power reliably and consistently, at relatively competitive rates—7 to 9 cents a kilowatt-hour.
Whether utilities are prepared to jump into the biomass game, however, depends on how effectively they can manage fuel risks.
“There is no such thing as a long-term fuel contract in the biomass business,” says Bill Carlson, once the operator of several biomass plants, and now an independent consultant and chairman of the USA Biomass Power Producers Alliance.
Most sources of biomass fuel will not make a commitment to deliver a certain quantity or type of fuel because fuel supply is not their core business. “They’ll sign a contract that says, ‘I’ll sell you all I have at a certain price,’” Carlson says. “But they won’t guarantee any quantity over time, because they really can’t.”