By Taylor Kuykendall
Though the Environmental Protection Agency has become an enemy of many West Virginia lawmakers for perceived anti-coal policies, at least one industry developing in the state has been shown some favor from the agency.
Last month, the EPA announced a three-year pass on greenhouse-gas permitting requirements from the burning of biomass materials. Research into the development of biomass, or plant and animal waste, as a fuel source is under way in West Virginia.
In the EPA announcement, the agency said the three-year deferral allows enough time to determine environmental impacts that may come from burning biomass for fuels. The agency will also use the time to determine if emissions from biomass facilities should be held to permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act.
Well before the EPA announcement, several West Virginia researchers had already been looking at developing biomass energy in the state.
Marshall University researchers at the Center for Environmental, Geotechnical and Applied Sciences (CEGAS) have working with the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center and the West Virginia Division of Energy Office of Coalfield Community Development to utilize abandoned and current coal surface mines for various renewable energy sources.
Around half a million dollars was devoted to the project last year. Researchers have been examining the potential of surface-mined land for use to grow biomass and even wind, solar and geothermal energy applications.
There are several renewable energy projects ongoing on surface mining sites, said George Carico, environmental manager at CEGAS and the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance program coordinator. One such project is analysis of Arundo donax, or giant reed, as a biomass fuel source on surface mine sites.
“The idea there is that this is another type of biomass crop that might be able to grow on surface mine sites where you have poor soil conditions,” Carico said. “Obviously, you can’t grow potatoes and tomatoes because of the soil quality on some of these sites.”
The giant reed, which can grow up to 20 feet tall, is in the same family as switchgrass, another potential biofuel, Carico said.
By volume, biomass fuels are not as efficient as coal, Carico said, but biomass is fairly clean- burning, has carbon uptake potential and has “pretty good” energy values.
“A pound of biomass does not produce the same energy as a pound of coal,” Carico said. “If it’s something that works though and you get something positive, it is a good thing.”
The material is harvested and then pressed into a dense briquette similar to wood pellets used in some wood stoves, Carico said. The main obstacle now is finding a place for the fuel.
“For biomass, it’s more about developing markets,” Carico said. “Once you grow the crops, you have to have a place to take it, and that is still in the early stages as well.”
Other renewables are not without obstacles to implementation on surface mine sites. Carico said many of the sites don’t have much wind potential, and there is currently little incentive to produce solar energy for sale to utility companies.
Biomass has the advantage of being interchangeable with coal in some instances, Carico said.
“You could actually blend it with the existing coal that is going into the power plants,” he said. “There has been some work done there. There’s been a few power plants in the region that have modified their permit so they can take very minor amounts of biomass material into their coal stream.”
Aside from swapping biomass fuel for coal in coal-fired plants, the two materials are also being blended together by another group of researchers in West Virginia.
At West Virginia University, researchers are developing ways to integrate coal and wood into a “more environmentally friendly” fuel that could potentially address climate change issues and provide a boost to the state economy. Researchers there hope to utilize a grant from the Department of Energy to study a “co-gasification” process that would blend wood and coal into a transportation fuel.
The effort could potentially lower dependence on foreign sources of oil. Success in developing the technology has been successful so far, and future research on the blended fuel has appeared promising.
Jingxin Wang, associate professor of forestry and wood science at WVU is a member of the research team working on the project.
“We have a lot of biomass here, a renewable resource, and a lot of coal,” Wang said. “Biomass also can mitigate greenhouse gas emission with coal. There’s a lot of potential.”
The researchers at WVU are experimenting with various blends of coal and woody biomass for various uses.
Wang said the industry holds a lot of potential for the state if West Virginians will take advantage of the opportunity.
“People need to realize there are benefits and new businesses that can be developed based on renewable resources we have available here,” Wang said. “That is something people need to know.”
In addition to its potential as a renewable fuel source, biomass may also reduce the volume of landfill waste. Unrecyclable paper products, sawdust, yard clippings and crop waste are all examples of potential fuel if processed correctly.
Some biofuels also give off less CO2 emissions — a major contributor to the global greenhouse gas effect. Doubling the benefit, plant-based biofuels can use and store CO2 from the air during photosynthesis.
“A lot of folks really don’t understand how much power we need and how much power that this state produces,” Carico said. “From our perspective here at Marshall, we feel that anything that we can do to increase our domestic energy production, whether it’s coal or natural gas or any renewable energies, we feel that is a step in the right direction.”
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