Article by Ranjit Deshmukh
Biomass has a tremendous potential for providing renewable energy if it is harvested in an environmentally sustainable manner. The forestlands of Humboldt County have considerable biomass that is scheduled for removal due to fuel reduction and fi re prevention activities. The Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC), with potential collaboration with the Schatz Tree Farm and the Department of Forestry at Humboldt State University, is looking at possible ways to convert this forest biomass into useful energy. As a Schatz Energy Fellow and SERC team member, I am involved in studying the thermal gasifi cation process and researching its feasibility in successfully harnessing energy from the forest biomass.
To reduce the risk of wildfi res, the Forest Service treats parts of the forest lands for fuel reduction, which involves burning biomass in concentrated piles. This results in degradation of air quality as well as the environment due to the concentrated burning. The biomass piles left to dry out by the roadsides often suffer from backlogs due to the limited burn windows, posing a serious fire hazard. This biomass, which is typically brush and small diameter wood, has little economic value. Removing this biomass from the forest and transporting it to the two biomass power plants in Humboldt County is generally not economically feasible, since the transportation costs and energy often outweigh the revenues and energy production gained from the biomass.
Thermal gasification of biomass could offer the benefits of distributed energy generation and controlled particulate emissions, while converting biomass into useful energy. The incomplete combustion of biomass results in the production of combustible gases consisting mainly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. These product gases, after being cleaned and filtered, can be used in a variety of applications ranging from internal combustion based electric generators to combustion for thermal applications.
Small-scale gasifiers (devices that convert solid fuels into gaseous fuels) could possibly be transported to the fuel reduction sites to generate electricity in closed reactors to feed into the grid. Gasifiers could also provide heat and/or electricity to non-electrified communities, schools and other institutions.
SERC is committed to researching clean and renewable energy technologies for our local region and is excited to bring biomass into our sphere of knowledge. We’ll keep you informed of the results of this study in a future edition of our newsletter.