How Biomass Energy Saves You Money and Reduces Your Carbon Footprint

Posted in Engineers on Nov 25 2022, by Pamela NewenhamPamela Newenham

What is biomass energy?

The business world is becoming ever more conscious about its carbon footprint, striving to find innovative ways to lessen its negative impacts on the environment. The most significant challenge facing businesses as they endeavour to reduce their carbon footprint is it can often be a costly exercise, and its benefits can be challenging to ascertain.

Biomass is a different matter.

Although biomass is one of many alternative energy sources with far less negative effects on the environment, it is not a modern energy source. People have used biomass energy since time immemorial. Cavemen were the first to use biomass energy with the invention of wood fires to keep them warm and prepare food. Today, businesses use biomass to fuel electric generators and other machinery.

Biomass is organic, meaning it is made of material from living things, such as plants and animals - or typically organic wastes. Among the most common materials used for biomass energy are wood, agricultural residues, forestry residues, industrial waste, animal waste, and solid waste/sewage. These are called biomass feedstocks.

Biomass contains energy that is first derived from the sun. Plants use chlorophyll to photosynthesize the sun's energy, and then animals, in turn, feed on these plants or feed on other animals that have eaten these plants.

The energy from these organisms can be transformed into usable energy through various means. Biomass can be burned to create heat. That heat is then used for electricity generation or processed into advanced biofuels - in other words, liquid fuels.

Is Biomass renewable?

Biomass has many benefits, primarily that it cannot be depleted like fossil fuels. With an abundance of biomass plants on Earth, biomass could be a primary renewable energy source that's a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels for decades to come. The use of biomass energy has the potential to significantly reduce an organisation’s greenhouse gas emissions, improving its environmental impact.

What are biomass energy boilers?

A biomass boiler generates heat, hot water, or steam by burning wood products (e.g. wood pellets, chips, logs) or other biomass feedstocks. Industrial biomass boilers are suitable for a wide range of applications, and you will commonly see them utilised within manufacturing, drying systems, food and drink processing, the paper industry, wood product production, and the transportation sector.

Various liquid biofuels are available to power your industrial boilers, each with its own costs, density, and moisture content. Wood Chip Boiler Heating Systems use wood chips for fuel. Meanwhile, Wood Pellet Heating Systems use pellets instead, while others use logs.

As the fuel burns, it heats water via a heat exchanger. This water then travels to the building's radiators, taps, showers, and baths. Modern biomass boilers have a storage compartment to automatically feed logs, chips, and pellets.

Biomass energy boilers are a burning topic, with the global industrial biomass boiler market expected to grow at a CAGR of around 2.8% in the forecast period of 2022-2027. With the many benefits, it is understandable why.

Advantages of Biomass Energy Boilers

1. Renewable source of energy

Gas, coal, and oil can take millions of years to form, and we are burning through this energy supply faster than we can produce it. Oil supplies are draining, and it is predicted that we will run out of fossil fuels during this century. Renewable energy production is the only solution. As long as plants are growing on this planet, there will always be fuel for a biomass boiler. That said, the use of biomass for energy is a no-brainer to help boost electricity production and offset the negative impacts of climate change.

2. Carbon Neutral

If you are trying to lower your business's carbon footprint, installing a biomass boiler could be an excellent way to do just that. Biomass is a carbon-neutral form of energy because biomass fuels release the same amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere as was absorbed by plants during their life cycle.

3. Highly efficient

A biomass boiler is an incredibly efficient boiler for heating systems and, when correctly installed and maintained, can have an efficiency of around 80-90%, similar to gas and oil boilers. They also have a better climate impact given that biomass boilers produce less greenhouse gases i.e. less negative emissions.

4. Lower costs per kWh

Aside from the positive climate impact, one of the most obvious advantages of implementing a biomass boiler is the potential reduction in fuel costs. Due to the ability to be able to use a wide variety of materials as a biomass energy source, prices for the fuel itself can be much lower. The largest source of biomass energy source is wood, in the form of wood waste, pellets or wood chips, and straw & miscanthus. Other sources of biomass energy include forest residues, food waste, agricultural residues, food crops, and municipal wastes.

5. Greater control over your business heating costs

If your business produces waste - whether it be wood, crop stalks, or garbage - then you may find that you can save money on having debris removed from the premises whilst also using the waste to heat/dry/power your factory.

6. Build a greener brand

Not only can you do your part for the planet, but by promoting sustainable business methods, you can also improve your brand image. Modern customers have developed a green stance regarding the companies they engage with. If your business can demonstrate your green energy credentials, your brand may appeal to this growing and highly influential demographic. Many companies have been endorsed by sustainability-focused groups and trade shows, opening a broader client base to their business.

When to use Biomass as a Decarbonisation Technology

  • When you have a need for steam (i.e. high-temperature heat)
  • When you have sources of organic wastes (e.g. food crops, woody planets, waste product) by product that could be combusted
  • When there are good, reliable local biomass sources
  • When you have a strong operations team that can operate and maintain the boiler system
  • You have good site access for additional fuel trucks and you have good space available
  • When the cost of biomass energy is lower than legacy fuel/energy sources

When not to use Biomass?

  • When your heat requirements are relatively low temperature i.e. HVAC loads < 100 deg celsius
  • When you are not equipped onsite to take on a major new asset required significant operational input
  • When your space on site is limited
  • When your ability to bring new/more traffic onto the site is limited
  • When energy supply is expensive and/or uncertain

Top Fuel Considerations

Although fuel should be the starting point for installing or retrofitting a biomass boiler, unfortunately, it often lacks consideration. Fuel should be analysed throughout the entire lifecycle of a boiler: from the design and specification phase, throughout installation and commissioning, to regular operations, optimization, and maintenance.

Fuel availability

Can you source enough good quality fuel for multi-year contract terms that matches the boiler specification?

Fuel quality

Can you ensure your fuel supply is of sufficient quality (that matches boiler fuel specification) i.e. moisture content, chip size, particle size distribution etc. The fuel must be between certain moisture ranges - too dry and the boiler will operate too hot. Too wet and there will be combustion issues and high greenhouse gas emissions.

Why is Fuel Analysis Important for Biomass Boiler Operators?

Fuel specification, fuel classification, and the ongoing study of fuel are essential for optimising efficiencies and reducing operational costs of biomass boilers.

Before upgrading boiler equipment or designing a new boiler system, it is just as important to look at fuel as it is to look at the equipment. When it comes to biomass boilers, one of the biggest mistakes that operators make is to solely focus on the efficient running of the equipment without placing an emphasis on the fuel itself; this is because it is so often assumed that the fuel stays the same over time. This could lead to a variety of mechanical, performance, and/or maintenance issues over time.

Although a fuel analysis is usually done when a boiler is installed or a new fuel is chosen, there is a risk of fuel drift which can impact the operation and efficiency of the boiler(s). It is important to understand that drifting from operations isn’t always caused by operational issues. It could be caused by not managing and understanding the fuel(s). A fuel analysis allows for treating the root cause of a problem and not just the symptom. Download this report to learn how to optimize biomass boiler performance with continuous fuel analysis.

Case Study: Fine-tuned existing Biomass Boilers at a Brazilian soybean plant

By making minor adjustments to the boilers and without any plant downtime required, CoolPlanet managed to save the facility R$4.3 million (US$770,000)/year on fuel.

The facility is one of the largest of its kind in the world and its four boilers have a combined output of 105 metric tons per hour. Three different types of fuel are burned, amounting to an annual total fuel cost of R$18 million (US$3.24 million) and an average steam cost of R$46 (US$7.3 million) per metric ton – this was before the optimisation of the system.

By collecting historical data as well as going to the site doing in-depth testing and measurement, and interacting with the boiler operators and maintainers, CoolPlanet was able to identify various operational challenges and ways to optimise the overall system operation.

The CoolPlanet team was led by Jason Garner, who boasts more than 18 years of specialised experience in working with biomass boilers (which includes combustion system and boiler design, installation, commissioning, and operation). For this project, Garner and his team opted for low-impact changes that resulted in the most benefit. Importantly, the modifications didn’t require the shutting down of the plant; it could be implemented with little disturbance to operations.

With the help of CoolPlanetOS [a powerful decarbonisation management system that enables your organisation to measure, manage and reduce carbon emissions at scale], CoolPlanet focused on improving the envelope of each boiler. Built with the company’s deep engineering experience in retrofitting manufacturing and industrial process sites, CoolPlanetOS offers the industry’s first Software as a service (SaaS)-based solution for real-time monitoring and analysis of energy consumption, providing insights into which machinery, process, product line, or site is currently not performing as expected.

Data is only one part – the other is action. As such, the CoolPlanet team took all the data they gathered, consolidated it with other operating parameters, and turned this into actionable improvements.

Improving the operations of the plant also improved the performance of the facility. Thanks to the modifications made and new data being provided, the lives of the operators are easier.

The total annual fuel cost was R$18 million (US$3.24 million) previously but thanks to the modifications made by CoolPlanet, this cost came down to R$13.7 million (US$2.47 million), achieving an annual saving of R$4.3 million (US$770,000).

The average steam cost also improved. Previously, this cost was estimated at R$46 (US$7.63) per metric ton, a number that was improved to R$40 (US$6.63) tons, saving R$6 (US$1) per metric ton.

In terms of capital expenditure (CAPEX), the payback of the improvements made by CoolPlanet is estimated at only two years. Read the full story of how biomass boilers achieved these results.

How can CoolPlanet help with Biomass?

As energy demand rises, energy from biomass is increasingly prominent in the global energy system. Modern biomass energy helps to avoid many environmental consequences of high carbon emissions and significantly reduces emissions - especially in difficult-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation, transport, and manufacturing.

CoolPlanet has extensive experience in biomass boilers and combustion systems more generally. It is essential to engage a biomass professional with credible, relevant expertise and experience early on in the design stage to ensure the front-end loading of the project design decisions.

Shifting knowledge to the front end exponentially affects the cost of construction and overall asset life cycle costs. With the engagement of an expert, classifying the fuel can be done optimally and better decisions made to reduce both the installation and operation costs of the system.