Bio-energy projects have been in controversy since ages, with the initial debates raging over the feedstock's intervention with food available for human consumption. Although these disputations are now a thing of past with such technologies being successful in proving their deftness over the use of a multitude of resources like agro-wastes, animal-wastes, municipal waste, forestry residues and others, which are of no significant use to the mankind.

Bioenergy: Impediments and Plausible Solutions

Setu Goyal


Introduction

Biomass resources have been in use for a variety of purposes since ages. Their multitude of uses includes usage as a livestock or for meeting domestic and industrial thermal requirements or for the generation of power to fulfil any electrical or mechanical needs. These resources provide for a clean source of power generation since most of them are considered to be carbon neutral.
 
Their omnipresence makes them a preferred choice for generation of energy, the world over. Considering the case of India alone, biomass has the potential to cater to nearly 15% of the existing 1,60,000 MW power capacity in the country. However, only about 2500 MW of this potential has been exploited so far. Numerous reasons could be sighted towards this ranging from high technological costs, availability of resources to an ever-troubling supply chain management. This article makes an attempt at collating some of the most prominent issues associated with such technologies and provides plausible solutions to most of them in order to seek further promotion of these technologies.
 
Roadblocks

The issues enumerated below, are not geography specific and are usually a matter of concern for most of the bioenergy related projects.
 
1.      Large Project Costs: In India, a 1 MW gasification plant usually costs about USD 1-1.5 Million. A combustion based 1 MW plant would need a little more expenditure, to the tune of USD 1-2Million. An anaerobic digestion based plant of the same capacity on the other hand could range anywhere upwards USD 3 Million. Such high capital costs prove to be a big hurdle for any entrepreneur or clean-tech enthusiast to come forward and invest into these technologies.
Not only this, unlike other renewable energy technologies like Solar and wind, bio-energy projects have to further bear the impact of significant operational costs owing to the feedstock, which is not available for free.
 
2.      Technologies have lower efficiencies: In general, efficiencies of Combustion based systems are in the range of 20-25% and Gasification based systems are considered even poorer, with their efficiencies being in the range of a measly10-15%. The biomass resources themselves are low in energy density and such poor system efficiencies could add a double blow to the entire project.
 
3.      Technologies still lack maturity: Poor efficiencies as mentioned above, call for a larger quantum of resources needed to generate a unit amount of energy. Owing to this reason
Investors and project developers find it hard to go far such plants at a larger scale. Moreover, the availability of only a few reliable technology and operation & maintenance services providers makes these, further undesirable. Gasification technology is still limited to scales lesser than 1 MW in most parts of the world. Combustion based systems have although gone upwards of 1 MW, a lot many are now facing hurdles because of factors like unreliable resource chain, grid availability and many others.
 
A large credit towards this going to the poor performance by the earlier start-ups who came forward in a big way to invest in these technologies just for the sake of getting tax-breaks and other associated incentives.
4.     
Lack of funding options: Owing to all the above mentioned problems, financing agencies usually give a tougher time to such project developers contrary to what it takes to invest in other renewable energy technologies.
 
5.      Non-Transparent Trade markets: Usually the resources are obtained through forests, farms, industries and/or animal sheds. There is no standard pricing mechanism for such resources and these usually vary from vendor to vendor, even with the same resource in consideration.
 
6.      High Risks / Low pay-backs: Bio-energy projects are also not so sought after owing to high project risks which could entail from failed crops, any natural disaster, local disturbances etc.
 
7.      Resource Price escalation: Unrealistic fuel price escalation too is a major cause of worry for the plant owners. Usually an escalation of 3-5% is considered while carrying out the project’s financial modelling. However, it has been observed that in some cases, the rise has been as staggering as 15-20% per annum, forcing the plants to shut down.
 
Plausible Solutions

All the above mentioned issues are causing an impediment to the proliferation of bio-energy technologies. But one needs to keep into consideration the clean nature of these resources. The benefits which accompany their utilization are not only restricted to the amount of emissions saved by avoiding an equivalent generation of power through conventional fuels, but also the sound disposal of resources which are usually considered a waste and are as such of no use to anyone.
 
The solutions provided below are a consequence of the author’s understanding and experience in the field and present his opinions over this topic. Each issue mentioned above, has been dealt with, in the same order.
 
1.      Large Project Costs: The project costs are to a great extent comparable to other renewable energy technologies, thus justifying the case. Also, people tend to ignore the fact, that most of these plants, if run at maximum capacity could generate a Plant Load Factor (PLF) of 80% and above. This figure is about 2-3 times higher than what its counterparts wind and solar energy based plants could provide. This however, comes at a cost – higher operational costs.
 
2.      Technologies have lower efficiencies: The solution to this problem, calls for innovativeness in the employment of these technologies. To give an example, one of the paper mill owners in India, had a brilliant idea to utilize his industrial waste to generate power and recover the waste heat to produce steam for his boilers. The power generated was way more than he required for captive utilization. With the rest, he melts scrap metal in an arc and generates additional revenue by selling it. .
Although such solutions are not possible in each case, one needs to possess the acumen to look around and innovate – the best means to improve the productivity with regards to these technologies.
 
3.      Technologies still lack maturity: One needs to look beyond what is directly visible. There is a humongous scope of employment of these technologies for decentralized power generation. With regards to scale, few companies have already begun conceptualizing ultra-mega scale power plants based on biomass resources. Power developers and critics need to take a leaf out of these experiences.
 
The project developer needs to not only assess the resource availability but also its alternative utilization means. It has been observed that if a project is designed by considering only 10-12% of the actual biomass to be available for power generation, it sustains without any hurdles.
4.     
Lack of funding options: The most essential aspect of any bio-energy project is the resource assessment. Investors if approached with a reliable resource assessment report could help regain their interest in such projects. Moreover, the project developers also need to look into community based ownership models, which have proven to be a great success, especially in rural areas.
 
5.      Non-Transparent Trade markets: Entrepreneurs need to look forward to exploiting this opportunity of having a common platform for the buying and selling of biomass resources. This could not only bridge the big missing link in the resource supply chain but also could transform into a multi-billion USD opportunity.
 
6.      High Risks / Low pay-backs: Bio-energy plants, as discussed above are rife with numerous uncertainties, fuel price escalation and unreliable resource supply to name just a few. Such plant owners should consider other opportunities to increase their profit margins. One of these could very well include tying up with the power exchanges as is the case in India, which could offer better prices for the power that is sold at peak hour slots. The developer may also consider the option of merchant sale to agencies which are either in need of a consistent power supply and are presently relying on expensive back-up means (oil/coal) or are looking forward to purchase “green power” to cater to their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
 
7.      Resource Price escalation: A study of some of the successful bio-energy plants globally would result in the conclusion of the inevitability of having own resource base to cater to the plant requirements. This could be through captive forestry or energy plantations at waste lands or fallow lands surrounding the plant site. Although, this could escalate the initial project costs, it would prove to be a great cushion to the plants’ operational costs in the longer run. In cases where it is not possible to go for such an alternative, one must seek case-specific procurement models, consider help from local N.G.O.’s, civic bodies etc. and go for long-term contracts with the resource providers.
 
Conclusions

Bio-energy projects have been in controversy since ages, with the initial debates raging over the feedstock’s intervention with food available for human consumption. Although these disputations are now a thing of past with such technologies being successful in proving their deftness over the use of a multitude of resources like agro-wastes, animal-wastes, municipal waste, forestry residues and others, which are of no significant use to the mankind.
 
However, with times, numerous other issues have come into existence, posing as obstacles to the wide-spread implementation of such clean technologies. The entrepreneurs and other clean-tech industrialists need to look beyond the horizons and seek solutions to these issues and help the proliferation of these technologies which can make a big dent in the increasing global power demands.
 
References:

About the Author

Setu Goyal is pursuing Masters Program in Renewable Energy Engineering and Management at the TERI University (New Delhi), and has an entrepreneurial zeal to improve waste management and renewable energy scenarios in developing countries. He can be reached at setu.goyal@gmail.com

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