Biomass in Virginia

in 2015, Virginia had more installed capacity for generating electricity from biomass than from hydropower sources
in 2015, Virginia had more installed capacity for generating electricity from biomass than from hydropower sources
Source: US Department of Energy, 2015 Renewable Energy Data Book (Cumulative Renewable Electricity Installed Capacity - South)

Virginia has several facilities that generate electricity by burning waste wood from timber operations. The fuel is forest "slash," portions of trees (such as branches and tops) that are not suitable for conversion into lumber or furniture in the area. In addition, Virginia plants also process wood into pellets exported to Europe, where they are burned to meet European Union mandates for generating electricity from renewable sources.

Utilities and pelletizing operations highlight how their operations provide jobs in rural areas of Virginia (as well as the Port of Chesapeake), and cite how forests are a renewable resource for energy in contrast to traditional fossil fuels - oil, gas, and coal. Environmental groups have raised concerns that the demand for biomass to generate electricity in Virginia (or Europe) could spur excessive logging, beyond sustainable levels and beyond the processing of just "waste wood." A particular concern is the harvest of whole trees for biomass operations, in addition to the removal from forests of logging residue normally left on the ground to rot.

artist's depiction of South Boston Biomass plant, showing pile of wood chips used for fuel
artist's depiction of South Boston Biomass plant, showing pile of wood chips used for fuel
Source: NOVI Energy

In 2013, the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC) opened the 50MW Halifax County Biomass (HCB) power plant in Halifax County, using fuel supplied by timber operations within 75 miles. Waste is chipped first before loading into the facility, so the fuel will burn smoothly. The heat then converts water into steam that turns a rotor in a generator and produces electricity, just as in a coal-fired power plant. (Wood dust and other waste from the Ikea furniture plant in Danville is another potential fuel source for the Halifax plant.)1

The NOVEC utility considers electricity generated from biomass to be carbon-neutral "green energy." Unlike power plants burning coal or natural gas (or vehicles burning gasoline/diesel/jet fuel), the CO2 emitted up the South Boston Energy smokestack would enter the atmosphere anyway within several years as bacteria/fungi decomposed the slash on the forest floor. In a reflection of sustainable design principles, for cooling purposes the facility also used graywater from South Bostonís wastewater treatment plant.two

The biomass plant was initiated after a Georgia Pacific plant closed in the Halifax County Industrial Park, and local officials sought new economic development. With strong local support, an entrepreneurial company (NOVI Energy) developed a plan, obtained permits and a $3 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission to subsidize the project, and ultimately sold the facility to NOVEC. That electric cooperative has customers only in Northern Virginia, far from the Halifax County Biomass plant. However, as electricity enters the grid in Halifax, NOVEC can draw equivalent amounts of electricity from the grid on the other side of the state - and sell "green power" certificates to environmentally-conscious customers.3

pattern of field and forest near Hurt, south of Staunton (Roanoke) River
pattern of field and forest near Hurt, south of Staunton (Roanoke) River
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Altavista 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2013, Revision 1)

In Hurt, another rural area in Pittsylvania County, Dominion claims the 83MW Pittsylvania Power Station is "one of the largest biomass power stations on the East Coast." Each day, the plant is supplied with roughly 150 truckloads of wood chips by MeadWestvaco. Because wood chips contains less sulfur than coal, the utility highlights the low-sulfur emissions as well as the carbon-neutral character of the plant.4

The largest utility in Virginia, Dominion, also operates the power plant with the greatest opportunity for conversion of biomass into electricity. The 600MW Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County is "hybrid" because it can generate as much as 20% of its output from locally-grown wood/wood waste.

The fluidized bed boiler design allows use of low-quality wood or waste coal, which generate far less heat per unit of volume compared to the bituminous coal normally used in power plants. There are technical challenges in creating a steady flow of heat and steam when burning coal with high heat content and wood chips at the same time, but the biomass creates less residual ash than the coal.5

trucks deliver wood chips to the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center
trucks deliver wood chips to the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center
Source: Dominion, Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center

The air quality permit was the last hurdle for opponents to try to block that plant from going into operations, and the final permit requires at least 5-10% of the electricity to come from biomass. In response to concerns that the power plant would spur excessive timber harvesting, Dominion responded with a claim that burning biomass would increase forest health:6

Current forest removal levels in Virginia are lower than the rate of forest growth, meaning that there is an annual increase in the amount of wood in the stateís forests every year... [I]f the power plant were to operate at full capacity using just standing timber from the 50 miles immediately surrounding it, the volume of standing wood in this area would still increase by over 110 million cubic feet each year.

One of the most unfortunate manifestations of these difficulties has been a continuing trend towards "highgrading" in many areas. Highgrading refers to removing larger high value trees while leaving poor quality and smaller trees. The result is that these low quality trees are left to regenerate the site, producing more poor quality trees. Without a market for low quality material, there is no incentive to stop this trend.

A facility able to accept chips from low grade material offers the opportunity to provide an incentive to reduce highgrading in favor of stand improvement harvests, wherein low quality material can be removed and the higher quality trees can be left to grow with reduced competition.

Dominion converted three coal-fired power plants to use exclusively wood waste for fuel, comparable to its larger facility in Hurt
Dominion converted three coal-fired power plants to use exclusively wood waste for fuel, comparable to its larger facility in Hurt
Source: Dominion, Dominionís Planned Conversions from Coal to Biomass Power (2011 Powerpoint presentation)

Dominion Resources converted three 63MW coal-fired power plants at Altavista, Hopewell, and Southampton from coal, creating 51MW plants powered by waste wood biomass. The plants had been constructed to produce steam for adjacent manufacturing plants, and co-generated electricity as a byproduct. The utility could have upgraded the plants to meet Clean Air Act standards or closed the small facilities completely, but chose instead to create three renewable-fuel operations.7

The Altavista plant, like Dominion's biomass facility in Hurt, gets its wood chips from MeadWestvaco, which has regional timbering operations to supply its paper mill in Covington. Dominion's 51MW renewable power plants in are supplied with wood pellets manufactured by a separate company, Enviva. Because the Hopewell and Southampton plants are located closer to the ports in Hampton Roads, Enviva also has the option of shipping its wood pellets overseas.8

Southside Virginia, especially the Roanoke River basin, has the greatest potential to provide logging residues for biomass energy
Southside Virginia, especially the Roanoke River basin, has the greatest potential to provide logging residues for biomass energy
Source: US Department of Energy - National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Forest residues

European Union regulations require use of renewable energy sources for generating electricity, so there is a market for shipping wood from Virginia across the Atlantic Ocean. A wood processing plant in Louisa County could manufacture compressed wood pellets, ship them overseas from a terminal in the city of Chesapeake, make a profit despite the low energy value in the pellets and the high transportation costs - and regulators could consider the final product to be a form of green energy. Such a deal was announced in 2011, though later that year the proposed production site shifted from a mill in Bumpass (Louisa County) to the Turner Tract Industrial Park in Courtland (Southampton County). The Bumpass plant, owned by Biomass Energy, closed in 2013.9

European utilities are planning to produce 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, avoiding the carbon tax and earning renewable fuel credits in that highly-regulated energy market. Since there is no way to ship electricity directly to Europe, the alternative is to ship renewable fuel instead of coal out of Hampton Roads.

Virginia's plants burn wood chips to generate electricity, but an extra processing step is required to export biomass across the Atlantic Ocean. Since raw wood is typically 50% moisture, logging residue is converted into wood chips, dried, ground to powder, then compressed into pellets to create a higher-density product. By the time utilities in Europe buy the pellets, the cost of the original logging residue has increased 600%.10

To support its export plans, Enviva acquired the Giant Cement Co. terminal in Chesapeake and constructed storage facilities for pellets coming from Virginia and North Carolina facilities. Enviva planned to load 2-3 ships with wood pellets, every 10 days. Great Britain is a major destination for Virginia's wood chips, especially after a utility in Selby, England converted a coal-fired power plant there to burn pellets.11

Competing companies planning to manufacture and export wood pellets announced plans for wood pellet production in Greensville County and near the city of Franklin, taking advantage of low wood prices after International Paper closed its mill in Franklin.

One Enviva competitor, ecoFUELS, leased 15 acres at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal in 2012. ecoFUELS drew attention as the first long-term tenant at Portsmouth Marine Terminal since container operations were shifted to APM Terminal in 2011, and because a major investor was the Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, in 2013. The extensive forests in the region, together with easy access to export terminals in Hampton Roads, spurred proposals for supplying biomass to European customers:12

A demand for wood pellets for generating electricity in Europe, the availability of the southern yellow pine and Western Tidewaterís proximity to the Atlantic ports seem to be the driving force.

One other potential source of fuel for biomass-produced energy, beyond forest products, is the production of crops directly for energy. The economics indicate that growing annual crops for "direct thermal conversion processes" (i.e., burning biomass to generate heat/electricity, without initial conversion into biofuels such as ethanol) will require major subsidies. As one researcher noted in a 2010 biomass meeting, energy companies were willing to pay only 25% of the cost of producing the crop. Without a subsidy equal to 75% of the cost of production, there was little potential for farmers to shift away from traditional food crops in order to grow material for biomass operations.13

A more-likely scenario is that crop residue could be utilized for energy. The primary crop would be sold for food, but leftover components might be converted into energy. Use of crop residues such as wheat straw and corn "stover" for energy (cob, husk, stalk, and leaf, everything except the high-value kernels) would match the use of logging residue from timber harvest operations to fuel biomass plants.

geographic distribution of corn stover in Virginia reflects the patterns of agriculture, with Accomack and Augusta counties providing the highest levels of crop residue
geographic distribution of corn stover in Virginia reflects the patterns of agriculture, with Accomack and Augusta counties providing the highest levels of crop residue
Source: Preliminary Residual Biomass Inventory for the Commonwealth of Virginia (p.22)

The Department of Energy estimated that 35% of the residue after harvest of grain crops could be utilized, with the other 65% required for soil conservation, animal grazing, or other farm-related purposes. The cost to collect and transport crop residues limits the economic potential; corn stover and wheat straw have low amounts of energy compared to the potential heat value for burning as fuel to generate electricity.14

Research for crop residue focuses on converting it into energy-dense biofuels, using on-farm digesters to minimize transportation costs. That approach parallels the decisions made by farmers on the western frontier of Virginia in the 1700's, in places without good road access to market cities. Producers of corn, wheat, rye, and barley in isolated areas could not afford to ship grain long distances by wagon. The logical alternative was to digest the grain, converting it into a product with lower volume and higher density - whiskey.

Southeastern Virginia, the Northern Neck, and the Eastern Shore have the greatest potential to provide crop residues for biomass energy
Southeastern Virginia, the Northern Neck, and the Eastern Shore have the greatest potential to provide crop residues for biomass energy
Source: US Department of Energy - National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Crop residues

Links

pellets are produced by chipping, drying, and compressing wood to create a fuel with higher energy density than raw wood waste
pellets are produced by chipping, drying, and compressing wood to create a fuel with higher energy density than raw wood waste
Source: Tennessee Valley Authority, Biomass Direct Generation

References

1. "Good wood?," The News & Record (South Boston), May 24, 2012, http://www.sovanow.com/index.php?/news/article/good_wood/ (last checked August 29, 2013)
2. "Biomass facility ready for trial run," The Gazette-Virginian (South Boston, Virginia), August 26, 2013, http://www.newsadvance.com/work_it_sova/news/article_17c6c9e0-0ea7-11e3-8bad-001a4bcf6878.html (last checked August 29, 2013)
3. "South Boston Energy Project (SBE)," NOVI Energy, May 31, 2011, http://www.novienergy.com/project-development/south-boston-energy-project-sbe (last checked August 29, 2013)
4. "Dominion Virginia Power Completes Biomass Conversion At Altavista Power Station," Dominion new release, July 15, 2013, http://dom.mediaroom.com/2013-07-15-Dominion-Virginia-Power-Completes-Biomass-Conversion-At-Altavista-Power-Station (last checked August 29, 2013)
5. "Co-firing with Biomass: A Look at the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center," Power Engineering, April 1, 2013, http://www.power-eng.com/articles/print/volume-117/issue-4/features/co-firing-with-biomass-a-look-at-the-virginia-city-hybrid-energy.html (last checked August 29, 2013)
6. "Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center Response to Data Request - Bruce Buckheit, Member, Virginia Air Pollution Control Board", 2008, http://www.deq.virginia.gov/Portals/0/DEQ/Air/Permitting/PowerPlants/VCHEC/Dominion/Buckheit/Buckheit_17.pdf (last checked August 29, 2013)
7. "Biomass Power," Dominion, https://www.dom.com/about/stations/renewable/biomass-stations.jsp (last checked August 29, 2013)
8. "Enviva Executes Agreement with Dominion Virginia Power for Biomass Supply," Enviva LP press release, October 19, 2011, http://www.envivabiomass.com/featured/enviva-executes-agreement-with-dominion-virginia-power-for-biomass-supply/; "Dominionís Planned Conversions from Coal to Biomass Power," Powerpoint presentation at Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show, Emil Avram (Dominion Director, Business Development), November 2, 2011, http://biomassconferencese2011.crowdvine.com/talk/download_attachment/23764 (last checked August 29, 2013)
9. "Enviva LP and Biomass Energy, LLC Announce Strategic Alliance," Enviva LP press release, August 15, 2011, http://www.envivabiomass.com/press-releases/enviva-lp-and-biomass-energy-llc-announce-strategic-alliance/; "Enviva LP Announces Wood Pellet Facility in Virginia," Enviva LP press release, November 30, 2011, http://www.envivabiomass.com/press-releases/enviva-lp-announces-wood-pellet-facility-in-virginia/; "Biomass plant closes in Louisa," Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, March 16, 2013, http://news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2013/03/16/biomass-plant-closes-in-louisa/; "Wood pellets bound for European ports," Hampton Roads Business Journal, January 6, 2012 http://insidebiz.com/node/195961 (last checked August 29, 2013)
10. "European climate policy drives wood pellet boom in NC," News & Observer (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina), August 17, 2013, http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/08/17/3115248/european-climate-policy-drives.html; "US Biomass: Where Do All the Wood Pellets Go?," RenewableEnergyWorld.com, June 14, 2012, http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2012/06/where-do-all-the-wood-pellets-go (last checked August 29, 2013)
11. "Europe loves our wood pellets," Hampton Roads Business Journal, May 20, 2011, http://insidebiz.com/node/144321 (last checked August 30, 2013)
12. "Wood pellet manufacturers setting up shop in southeastern Va., N.C.," TidewaterNews.com, June 25, 2011, http://www.tidewaternews.com/2011/06/25/wood-pellet-manufacturers-setting-up-shop-in-southeastern-va-n-c/; "Wood pellet exporter signs lease at Portsmouth Marine Terminal," Virginia Business, October 10, 2012, http://www.virginiabusiness.com/index.php/news/article/321425/ (last checked August 29, 2013)
13. "Southeast growers have biomass crop options," Southeast Farm Press, December 1, 2010, http://southeastfarmpress.com/grains/southeast-growers-have-biomass-crop-options (last checked August 30, 2013)
14. A. Milbrandt, "A Geographic Perspective on the Current Biomass Resource Availability in the United States," US Department of Energy - National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Technical Report NREL/TP-560-39181, December 2005, p.11, http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy06osti/39181.pdf (last checked August 30, 2013)


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