Concluding his remarks, Steiner said that there needs to be a transition in thinking about each of these processes linearly and to integrate all aspects of biomass utilization in a way that maximizes efficiency. By doing so, it should be possible to eliminate waste products and instead have them serve as feedstocks for other processes.
One of the main themes of this breakout group’s discussion, which Steiner led, is that the generation of heat and power from biomass may best be done at a smaller rather than larger scale in the United States. This is in contrast to Europe, where economic and political drivers have created a demand for biomass-generated power on a large scale. The point was raised that community-scale or even home-scale digesters that would turn local wastes into gas that would be burned for heat or in a small co-generation facility might be economically viable, and it was noted that a Korean company is making a home-scale system. What is needed, some members of the group noted, was scientific performance data from systems of this scale that would allow a sound case to be made for use of local biomass in this way.
In fact, the many breakout group members said, the field as a whole needs solid modeling to determine the minimum- and maximum-sized operations that make economic sense based on performance metrics. It was also noted by some members that there is a need to develop a matrix identifying which fuel source is most economical at what scale. The group noted, though, that an impediment to performing such modeling work is the absence of such metrics for smaller scale systems. Given that the field of power generation from whatever source is seen as being mature with no need for research, the group commented that such metrics are not likely to be generated soon. Some breakout group members said that a formal analysis of state-of-the-art technologies that are available should be done, particularly in Europe and Asia, to look at how the performance of those systems could inform decision making in the United States.
There is also the perception, the group commented, that large-scale biomass production is slated for liquid fuels production given that there are other ways of making electricity and power sustainably. It was also raised by some participants that first coal, and now natural gas, is so inexpensive that biomass cannot compete in the large-scale power generation area. The one thing on the horizon that could change this economic reality, the group said, is the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific panel decision in less than three years on how to classify biogenic emissions. If the panel ultimately decides that biogenic emissions should not be included in greenhouse gas emissions accounting schemes, that could be an incentive to use biomass on a large scale for power and heat generation.
Many members of the breakout group noted that the lack of a national policy on the use of biomass to generate power and the lack of public understanding of biomass as a local power resource are topics that need addressing. They went on to note that such policies and public information campaigns need to be data-driven, and those data are largely missing.
Turning to the discussion of the skills needed to move this field forward, the many breakout group members concurred that the field needs to attract chemists and chemical engineers to the field, but doing so will require first overcoming the perception that there are no jobs in the field. In general, though, the breakout group noted that students in technical subjects need education in economics, policy, and sociology in order to be able to communicate within the multidisciplinary teams required to move the field forward. The breakout group also recognized the need for having life-cycle analysis and quantification of uncertainty added to technical programs.
This breakout group did not have much to add on the subject of the transportation infrastructure other than that there is a need to assess the existing infrastructure to see how it can be best used to move biomass. The group noted that transportation needs depend on scale, technology, and economics and again pointed to the need to conduct a systems analysis if the goal is to optimize the existing system to handle expanded use on the relevant geographical and mass scale.
In the ensuing open discussion, a workshop participant noted that the United States produces more power from biomass through direct firing than Europe. What Europe has done is make use of the heat generated during biomass combustion to a far greater degree, largely because of the prevalence of district heating systems in Europe.