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Is there more hype in biofuels than the dot com?

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Is there more hype in biofuels than the dot com?

May 30, 2011 - 02:11
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NEW YORK, May 30, 2011 (RISI) -A group of industry professionals is working to show how the pulp and paper industry can help grow the emerging bioeconomy in the US.

There is a real possibility for the US to create a sustainable and profitable bioeconomy. Such an economy would produce biofuels, bio-chemicals and bio-power, improve energy efficiency and energy sustainability, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. Many of the most important components are already in place

Education is the key to bring this possibility to reality in a matter of years, not decades, says the Bioenergy Deployment Consortium (BDC), an organization that informs the industry about developed bioenergy technologies that are in deployment today and arranges tours of pilot-demonstration plants that are in operation

"One thing that most people don't realize is that pulp and paper has historically generated more bioenergy that the rest of the bioenergy industry combined," says Ben Thorp, one of three co-founding board members of BDC. Thorp, who holds several commercial patents, worked in the pulp and paper industry for 40 years, including chief engineer for James River Corporation and Georgia Pacific. "The pulp and paper industry has been at the forefront of generating bioenergy for years," says Thorp.

BDC members recently toured Coskata's semi-commercial cellulosic ethanol pilot plant, located in Madison, Pennsylvania, thirty miles southeast of Pittsburg, PA.

Mills currently use recovery and biomass boilers to generate energy in the form of steam for and electricity for the facility, based on chemical technology originally developed in the 1930s. Because the mill consumes this energy, the public is often unaware of the industry's potential to produce bioenergy on a larger scale.

"Typically, the power doesn't go on the grid, but is used at the mill," says Thorp. Of the approximately 2.3 quadrillion BTUs of energy consumed annually by the pulp and paper industry, over 60% is self-generated, on average. "That is a huge amount of self-generated bioenergy," says Thorp.

There is the potential for mills to produce 100% of their energy, says Harry Seamans, one of three co-founding board members of BDC. Seamans worked in the industry for 32 years and served as Vice-President, Pulp and Paperboard Group, for Potlatch Corporation and Clearwater Paper. "That is one of the things we are working toward," says Seamans. "With all the experience in the industry, we see it as the natural place for bioenergy to grow."

The concept of integrating biomass refineries with the mills is one of the most interesting opportunities for the bioenergy industry, says Masood Akhtar. Akhtar, President and one of three co-founding board members of BDC, is an energy entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in the field of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

"One of the things that people talk about is how advanced biotechnologies are not yet fully developed," says Akhtar. "There is still a lot of risk, the ROI is not there yet, but some companies are starting."

By deploying developed technologies, a pulp and paper mill can bring unique advantages to bioenergy generation today, explains Akhtar. When integrating a biofuels or biopower facility with pulp and paper production, two specific benefits can be achieved almost immediately:

  • Reduce the manufacturing costs by producing renewable components for the mill, such as steam and reclaimed water.
  • Generate additional revenue by producing advanced biofuels, bio-products and other value-added products.

"When you combine these benefits, both on the energy efficiency side and on the new products side, it really has the potential to turn things around," says Akhtar. "I think people have to understand what the technology provides. There is a market out there with a lot of potential.

BDC Co-Founding Board Members (Left to Right): Ben Thorp, Harry Seamans and Masood Akhtar

Whether any of these processes will succeed in the long-term depends on cost competitiveness. "At BDC, we are working toward processes that will be economical without any government subsidy," says Seamans. "In the pulp and paper industry, you are not going to find a company to invest in a process that is going to depend on a subsidy because you never know if the subsidy is going to go away."

Integrating bioenergy generation alongside pulp and paper production is one design available to build a sustainable bioeconomy, and one that will keep costs down, says Seamans. If bioenergy utilities are built on their own, without the benefit of other infrastructure and without a way to reuse the waste, efficiencies are limited to the 20-30% range. When facilities are integrated, with the infrastructure that can utilize all processes side-by-side, the range of efficiency can climb to 70-80%.

"Naturally, the companies you find that are succeeding are the ones that are integrating and getting their costs down," says Seamans.

Showing the distinction between theory and deployment is important to nurturing the emerging bioeconomy and another part of BDC's mission. "One of our roles is to provide our members and the general public with fact-based, trustworthy information," says Thorp. "There is more hype and hope in the biofuels and the bioenergy area than there was in the dot com era."

BDC ( started as a regional initiative in 2006 and was originally called Biorefinery Deployment Collaborative. Assisted by CleanTech Partners (CTP), BDC has grown into a national organization with over 25 member companies. In 2010, BDC was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Kenneth Norris is a US based contributing editor to PPI magazine and the RISI community website and can be contacted