A New Generation

Under the right circumstances, biodiesel can be a clean, local, economically viable source of electricity. Biodiesel Magazine highlights some of the projects being developed across the United States.
By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | January 01, 2008
Biodiesel is finding new life as a fuel in generators and turbines to produce electricity. The application is gaining a lot of interest in states where traditional electricity from coal is too dirty or too remote. Some of the best applications for stationary power from biodiesel are in places where fuel oil is already used, and where it's expensive. Both Alaska and Hawaii currently use a form of crude oil as an electricity source. Liquid fuels are cheaper to ship than coal and have more British thermal units per pound, so there's more power in a shipload of fuel.

In Alaska, the large population centers of Anchorage and Fairbanks are on what's called the rail belt, a large energy grid powered by hydroelectricity and natural gas. Most of the remainder of the state's population, however, resides in rural villages spaced far apart, often only accessible by air or water. The majority of these villages get their electricity from diesel, according to James Jensen, biofuels program manager for the Alaska Energy Authority. Many of these towns have microgrid diesel-generated power of less than 1 megawatt, he says. These towns purchase diesel in bulk twice a year when barges can access the communities. Fuel prices can range from $3 to $6 per gallon. "I would say biodiesel is probably most appropriate in rural villages where diesel is very expensive," Jensen says. "To be cost effective, biodiesel has to be produced locally, or it will be just as expensive as imported diesel."

Locally produced biodiesel could be made with fish oil, which is removed from waste materials during processing. Fish oil has valuable properties for animal feed, aquaculture, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and is usually worth more than diesel. However, many villages are so far away from the markets, that transportation costs make the price of the fish oil lower than that of diesel, according to John Steigers, project
development manager for Precision Energy Services Inc. Since 2001, he has worked with seafood processors to demonstrate the use of fish oil as a direct substitute for diesel in their reciprocating diesel engines used on-site to produce electricity. UniSea Inc., a company in the Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, uses up to 600,000 gallons of fish oil per year in its engines, he says. Of course, fish oil is not a solution for everyone. "With raw fish oil, you have to pay close attention to the engine," Steigers says. "The reason you would go with biodiesel is that you could use it in all modern engines." Additionally, he says there is a market for biodiesel in places such as parks and wildlife refuges where fuel spills have greater consequences.

Alaska's commercial fishery industry currently produces 8 million gallons of fish oil, but has the capacity to produce up to 21 million gallons using all of the fish that are harvested, according to Steigers. While this may seem sufficient for a commercial biodiesel facility, Steigers notes that collecting the feedstock in a central location wouldn't work. "The fish processing might happen for two months here, three months there and hundreds to thousands of miles apart," he says. "In order to process waste, we would have to move the fish oil production facility with the fisheries."

Steigers is assisting the AEA in a project to develop and operate a portable module capable of rending fish oil from the waste that fish processors grind and dump. The AEA issued a request for proposals, which is available on its Web site, and it expects that respondents will begin module operations this summer. "What we want, is that when a processing facility operates in a community, it would leave the oil in the community," he says. "[The oil] would be used as an energy fuel, either as a boiler fuel, engine fuel, or if you had a small, portable fish oil production facility, you could match that up with a small, portable biodiesel production facility. Our concept is once you have the feedstock established, then it's fairly straightforward to make biodiesel from that feedstock." He estimates such a facility would make less than 100,000 gallons per stop.

In Hawaii, 30 percent of the state's imported oil is used for electricity generation, according to the Hawaiian Electric Co. HECO recently announced plans to build a 110-MW generating station at its Campbell Industrial Park generating station. Actual construction of the 110-MW simple-cycle combustion turbine generating unit is expected to begin early this year and be in service by mid-2009. In an agreement with the State Department of Consumer Advocacy, HECO pledged to fuel the unit entirely with biofuels. The generating station is projected to use 5 MMgy to 12 MMgy of biodiesel, supplied by Imperium Services LLC, which is an affiliate of Imperium Renewables Hawaii.

Imperium Renewables opened a 100 MMgy biodiesel facility in Washington last May, and plans to build a 100 MMgy plant at Kalaeola Harbor on Oahu. According to HECO, Imperium will work with them to promote the development of locally grown feedstocks. In a report from the Hawaii Agricultural Research Center, if recommendations are followed and expected yields are attained, Hawaii could produce more than 150 MMgy of biodiesel from local feedstocks. Imperium has agreed to preferentially purchase sustainably grown Hawaiian feedstocks where available and to cooperate and comply with the "Environmental Policy for the Hawaiian Electric Company's Procurement of Biodiesel from Palm Oil and Locally-Grown Feedstocks," prepared by HECO and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Clean Choice
Biodiesel is also an economically viable electricity source in places less remote than the 49th and 50th states. In places such as Texas and Vermont, it can be used as a source for clean electricity. Last year, Biodiesel Magazine featured Texas-based Biofuels Power Corp., located in Oak Ridge North, a suburb of Houston, in the May 2007 issue (see "Electricity by the Gallons"). The company is meeting a demand for renewable electricity in Houston, where air emissions are highly regulated by the U.S. EPA. It generates 15 MWs of electricity from B100 made by its sister company, Safe Renewables Corp., and is one of the only companies in the United States consistently producing electricity from B100. When Biodiesel Magazine previously spoke with Chief Operating Officer Ken Crimmins, the company was operating three used diesel Caterpillar generators to produce 5 MWs, and it was expecting the delivery of a 10-MW General Electric turbine. Crimmins expected sales to be most profitable in the hot summers, when electricity demand is highest.

A lot has happened since then. "To say it was the coolest summer in south Texas would not be a lie," Crimmins laments. "Consumers enjoyed very low prices because we had abnormal weather patterns We made a decision to sell power during the peak [hours] every day. It would have been nice to have gotten a greater rate of return. We were willing to suffer the small setbacks minute to minute to get the greater good, which is to demonstrate that a biofuel can turn animal renderings into electrons."

While the company was dealing with poor pricing, it was also installing the 10 MW turbine. The turbine was turned on Sept. 10, and has been operational every day since, Crimmins says. The turbine will provide advantages for the company. "The turbine consumes 1 1/2 times more fuel [than the generators] but it can use a fuel that costs half the price," he says. "We're looking for the opportunity to run even lower quality biodiesel in the turbine made from inedible products that are way below food grade. Biodiesel from brown grease and other things that would never go into a reciprocating engine can be blended into a turbine. By focusing our efforts on inedible oil stocks, we're not competing with the food chain." Crimmins is also seeking to install a 2.5 MW steam turbine that can burn fuels that are below biodiesel grade, such as glycerin and wet methanol. This is all part of an effort to make electricity economical. "Because it's fungible, people don't care where it comes from as long as it's the same price," Crimmins says.

Although Vermont isn't remote and its air emissions aren't highly regulated by the EPA, its state legislature is interested in incentivizing investment in renewable energy. The political climate and a search for alternative fuels led the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority to consider generating electricity with biodiesel-powered turbines. The authority is planning to install two 20-MW GE turbine units this year, which it is purchasing from the city of Los Angeles. VPPSA General Manager Scott Corse expects to close on the deal in March and move the turbines to Swanton, which is in the far northwest corner of the state about 60 miles south of Montreal. Also in Swanton is Biocardel Vermont LLC, a soy-based biodiesel producer that is ramping up to 4 MMgy. The soy is being grown in Quebec and crushed by a company in Richmond, Quebec. "There have been conversations to see if it's a feasible crop for Vermont growers, and to maybe open a crushing facility in Swanton," says Biocardel General Manager Stephen Daigle. He says the plant already has a sustainable customer base in the region, which includes transportation, home heating oil and the stationary power units.

Corse estimates the turbines will use about 500,000 gallons of biodiesel per year, but that number could be higher or lower depending on demand. Similar to the Houston operations, these turbines will serve as peaking plants, which means they will only operate when power is needed and when it's economical to run.

Another factor influencing biodiesel demand is the blend ratio. In its air quality permit application, the VPPSA indicated it could use natural gas, heating oil or B20. "All three of those fuels have reliable information on emissions," Corse says. Then, in order to scale up to a higher blend, the VPPSA will seek permission to test varying grades of biodiesel and reapply for another air quality permit. Corse says he would like to operate the turbines on B100, but he hasn't been able to find emissions data on B100 for these specific turbines. "If we had information that we thought was credible and applicable, we might modify our permit application now rather than waiting to amend it later," he says.
Construction and installation of the turbines, which is expected to take four months, cannot begin until the air permit has been issued. The VPPSA applied for the permit in mid-November, and Corse expects it will take about six months.

These projects are certainly not comprehensive of the U.S. biodiesel-fueled stationary power applications currently under development. Other projects in Texas, New York and Tennessee are also generating electricity and building a market for biodiesel. Though it is a more expensive fuel to produce electricity than coal, these projects demonstrate that in the right conditions, it can be the best choice.

Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at amcelroy@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 738-4962
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