Get Smart about Energy™


Open4Energy is delighted to announce its latest forum on renewable energy to coincide with the Biogas confernce to be hosted by Green Power Conferences in San Francisco, 13-14 October 2010.

We make no claim to having anything like the technological expertise of the companies who will be presenting at the GreenPower conference. But over the past six months, following the successful and historic launch of the Marin Energy Authority and our following of their pioneering of Community Choice Aggregation the legislation allowing for local competition in energy generation - we have become increasingly aware of the urgent need for a solution to cost effectively 'scrub' the smaller volumes of biogas produced by community sized digestion facilities.

We have had the pleasure to observe two local projects. A local waste water treatment plant and a local corrections facility. But in both cases, the volumes of biogas being considered are more like 30 to 40 thousand cubic feet per day. Considerably lower than that of the typical technologies and projects we have been able to research. It is most gratifying to know that there are currently more than 100 on-farm anaerobic digesters, and more than 80 in the planning stage. But they are all so much bigger than what we need.

Being based in Silicon Valley, California we have been actively following the success of the Bloom Fuel Cell technology. In particular its high-efficiency of converting potential energy to usable electricity relative to other fuel-cell technologies. But on meeting with the Bloom, we quickly established that hydrogen sulfide, (H2S) is to fuel cells as arsenic is to human beings. A quick and certain death! And at the price of this latest technology, not a happy thought at all.

I quote Ken Stamper of Production Specialties who has been working on a pilot project for a local sewage agency in Oklahoma. "I believe sulfur removal from biogas is the single most important aspect of commercializing biogas projects. Utilizing biogas without effective sulfur removal, will have a quick and profound impact on capital equipment, and maintenance costs."

This is where the problem begins. In the clean (green) energy industry, there seems to be great interest in achieving “economies of scale” by lowering costs with ever larger and more centralized facilities. But are these industrial-scale facilities little more than the high-tech buggy whips of a “new” energy industry - built on an old model?

We are all familiar with the dominance and ultimate decline of the computer mainframe, supplanted first by PCs, and then by increasingly smaller laptops. Those of my age remember how reluctantly IBM gave up its centralized control of power. Similarly, we have seen telephone landlines supplanted by mobile networks. The robustness and the efficiency of highly distributed information and communications systems are well accepted.

But as we sought out a solution for our 30 to 40 thousand cubic feet of biogas per day, and the need for "natural gas" quality, we found little that suited our needs. Our need are in the 100 to 200 Kw range, and not the 1.0 Megawatt of Green Electricity being achieved in this local project.

On the commercially available side of the equation we found a number of solutions. But all costing well in excess of $1M+, with operational needs that simply do not fit the profile of a local public agency. Besides other things, a local school is close by. The idea of aggressively increasing gas production to achieve better economies of scale may sound good in theory. But as we used to say, two chances - none and the other is even less likely! There are some 400 (at least in California) local waste water treatment plants located in residential areas. After all, this is where the "organics" being processed are produced. Increasing our local population density is out of the question, and bringing in additional waste would be as popular to our community as PG&E have made themselves recently with their prop. 16 and other activities. All a most 'mucky' issue indeed.

The alternative, much to our surprise, was a 50 gallon drum filled with steel wool. The invention of a local farmer, convinced he has solved the issue for their household requirements.

Now we could fall back to the well-established co-generation, inefficient fuel-cell, or other 'burning' technologies. But what a great sadness it is to think that we might ignore the opportunity for inventing a distributed small scale solution for a trend towards mainframe like economies of scale! I believe we require a small, but efficient scrubbing solution. One that will facilitate the full potential of the organic waste being produced in our communities. How foolish it seems to literally truck the fuel potential out of the area, and then 'truck' in the energy it needs.

And the answer should arrive in a container, require a non-physicist to operate, and sweeten the biogas to a usable quality. All at less than the cost of purchasing natural gas. Rather than transporting electricity over long distances, which is costly, environmentally unfriendly and inefficient, this approach would optimize the energy potential of the biogas in the midst of the community who require its value.

Fuel cells need higher-quality fuel than rusty steel-wool can produce.

As an aside, for a future article, the current legislation doesn’t help in Northern California. The local Net Metering Tariffs, are in stark contrast to the Self Generating Energy Incentives (SGIP) offered in California. It feels like we are trying to build a Lamborghini, while decreeing that all vehicles must have a rear anchor to prevent speeding. But there is no point in trying to level the legislative playing field if biogas has no relevant players. We need an understanding of our economies of scale for the local biogas potential we have to succeed. We need to scale down, and not up .....

The advances in fuel cell technology offer a new potential. We sincerely trust, and applaud GreenPower Conferences for bringing the people and technology together in California. We do hope that in additional to the 'large scale' discussions, that there will be a healthy discussion on the small scale innovation also required.

Research and contribution by Gordon Bennett

Get Smart about Energy™