Old King Coal Not So Merry Any More: Biomass Conversions on the Rise

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Coal-to-biomass conversions could help put an end to surface coal mining.From Hawaii, U.S.A. to Limpopo, South Africa and everywhere in between, the push is on to convert coal-fired power plants to burn biomass.  Just in the past few days, FirstEnergy announced plans to convert one of its coal plants into one of the largest biomass plants in the U.S.  As if this full frontal assault wasn’t enough, a major conference is set in July to explore the full potential for converting coal plants to biomass co-firing.  That could bring an eventual end to coal mining operations like the one pictured above, but the question is: where’s all that biomass going to come from?

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The Biomass Solution:  Location, Location

We’re already seeing the consequences of an ill-planned rush to grow crops and cut forests for biofuels.  The Limpopo conversion shows that there is a better way.  The plant is located at a citrus farm that was burning well over 10,000 tons of coal per year in order to process discarded fruit skins for animal feed.  It’s also located within a region thick with sawmills.  Converting from coal to biomass reduces greenhouse emissions from the power plant but because of the location, that’s just the start of the benefit.  Fuel for the Limpopo biomass burner comes from local sources, eliminating emissions related to shipping coal over long distances.  And, rather than leading to the kind increased deforestation associated with biofuel crops, the burner uses waste biomass, in the form of sawdust and waste products, from existing sawmill operations.

Converting to Biomass: It Just Keeps Getting Better

Aside from industrial scale biomass burners that could help entire regions kick the coal habit, coal-to-biomass conversions could help more individual households as well.  That’s due to recent improvements in the efficiency of home-scale biomass heaters.  Another emerging technology that shows promise is “instant coal” made from biomass.

Image:  BK59 at flickr.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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