Is it possible to turn coal power plants into renewable energy producers? According to the supporters of bio coal, the answer is yes – coal plants can burn bio coal, created from biomass, without retooling their storage, handling, or burning systems.
Bio coal is somewhat similar to charcoal, but created from biomass harvested from plantations, urban areas, or the forest (brush and dead or diseased trees) and treated by torrefaction to provide a much better fuel quality than straight biomass. Torrefaction is a process carried out at atmospheric pressure (and in the absence of oxygen) at temperatures between 200-300°C, with the biomass partially decomposing during the process.
Bio coal has almost twice the energy density of wood sawdust pellets and is equivalent to the energy density of the coal used by coal fired power plants. According to advocates, bio coal meets all renewable fuel and CO2 reduction regulations and is carbon neutral – the original biomass would naturally release its carbon back into the atmosphere as CO2 through decomposition or fire. Bio coal is also said to have a significantly greater energy conversion efficiency than biomass used directly as a fuel source.
Renewable Fuel Technologies, a bio coal energy company, says that because coal power plants are the largest source of CO2 emissions in the US, if coal plants switched to bio coal, they could be green energy producers and comply with recent regulations calling for reduced CO2 emissions from power plants.
Bio coal could also be blended with fossil coal in power plants, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says Verdant Energy Solutions. This means that power plants don’t have to switch over to 100% bio coal in order to reap some of the benefits of it.
A study earlier this year found that biomass was best used for the generation of electricity, rather than ethanol or other biofuels, as it is 80% more efficient to do so. Any technology that can efficiently turn biomass into bio coal could very well change the face of renewable energy as we know it, especially if it was a mobile processing unit, capable of going to where the feedstock was rather than relying on transportation to a facility for conversion.
Derek Markham is a father, writer, and social media butterfly based in New Mexico, with a passion for all things sustainable. For the last ten years, he's worked in the natural foods industry, most recently running a small co-operative grocery store. In his personal time, he loves to ride his bike (an 80s Trek singlespeed), go bouldering and slacklining, and he can usually be found in the middle of about ten different books. You can also find him on other sites including Twitter, Twilight Earth, Natural Papa, and Green Options.