Paving the Way to a Clean Energy Revolution

New products such as biochar, liquid fuels, and chemicals all made from some form of biomass will be aided directly in their process by the use of steam or by colocation to the generation of steam.
By Justin Price | November 20, 2014

As I read through copious news releases, articles and general information about the biomass industry, I reflect on my personal experiences and lessons I’ve learned growing up in the wood products industry. What I find most compelling is the continued impact the use of steam has had on our industry and society.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution began in England, spreading to Europe and then to North America. Our lives drastically changed forever when James Watt developed an engine that used steam to pump water out of mines. Later developments added the circular motion onto the engine, and with the invention of these circular gears, factories could begin to utilize the steam engine. Thus, powered by steam, the Industrial Revolution was born.

I believe combined heat and power (CHP) and colocation played a major role in the Industrial Revolution. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the small town of Pollock, Louisiana, which was once home to the largest sawmill in the U.S. and possibly the world, during the late 1800s. This sawmill used steam engines to power the band saws, head rigs, edgers and other equipment. During this time, sawmills revolutionized the use of their waste products—sawdust, bark and chips—to make steam in the boiler.  As a result, we have been utilizing CHP for quite some time.

When I think about CHP, what comes to mind is the use of steam as an efficient approach to generate power and thermal energy from a fuel source. Of course, during the Industrial Revolution, the steam was directly used in the process as the power, whereas today, we may use the steam to turn a turbine that produces electricity that can be supplied as renewable energy, or heat for district heating or for use in other parts of the manufacturing process.

In my lifetime, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in projects within industries that have used these same ideas for generating steam, which leads me to think about the future. We’ve all read about steam used in district heating and power generation for the grid. In my vision of the future, there will be some mix of this, along with the emergence of new industries not yet defined. New products such as biochar, liquid fuels, and chemicals all made from some form of biomass will be aided directly in their process by the use of steam or by colocation to the generation of steam. Many of these processes, like the steam engine, have been developing slowly over a period of years and progressing through expensive and limited devices. Like steam power, they will reach the point of practical application, perhaps triggering a new revolution of clean renewable products and forms of energy.

I’m excited about the future of biomass energy and its potential for widespread use. I believe the use of renewable resources can meet a large percentage of the total U.S. electrical needs, while drastically reducing the electrical sector’s greenhouse gas emissions and water use. But in order for this vision to become reality, we must all play a role in discussing biomass openly and honestly with the public, explaining critical components such as sustainability practices in harvesting biomass. We even need to look outside the borders of the U.S. to learn from other countries and how they have successfully implemented renewable policies and equipment.

Author: Justin Price
Principal, Evergreen Engineering
jprice@eeeug.com
541-484-4771