Kern County biomass plant a hit … and miss

“Here’s the rub: that global energy production from fossil-fuel burning is as pronounced as it is, a byproduct of which is the release of harmful pollutants into the atmosphere creating an ever-present human-health hazard, to slow and perhaps reverse the air damage already done, sustainable energy-production methods must not only be employed but exploited as well.”

This is just a part of what I wrote back on Dec. 1, 2012 in: “Clean Air Technologies Series kick-off: Shock-absorber packs ‘power’-ful punch.”

What I think is quite remarkable is any effort to generate energy more efficiently. I think it even more so when generating energy more efficiently also means producing such more cleanly. With the conversion of a co-generation plant located in Kern County, California from coal to biomass using agricultural waste, for me, for this particular operation, it is six of one, half a dozen of the other.

You see produced from this particular plant are two byproducts: electricity and steam, according to Bakersfield Californian staff writer John Cox.

“Until about a year ago, nearly 2 million pounds a day of agricultural waste and urban tree trimmings would go up in smoke or get trucked to a landfill, and nobody really benefited from it,” wrote Cox.

“Not anymore. Now it fuels a power plant north of Bakersfield that generates enough electricity to power 30,000 homes – and it helps produce steam that doubles production in nearby oil fields.”

Okay: I get the electricity-generating bit. But producing steam for the purpose of injecting such into the ground to help release trapped oil; for real?! Stated another way: what is going on here is the exploitation of a byproduct of renewable energy generation used to help extract from the ground a non-renewable, non-sustainable, dirty fossil fuel – in this case oil.

Could not the steam be better used for business- or home-heating purposes?

If that weren’t enough, get a load of this: “Air regulators say biomass plants emit roughly the same total amount of pollution as coal,” added Cox. “But they say plants that run on wood pulp are much more beneficial because they spew less sulfur oxide and certain other pollutants, and the carbon they release into the air is captured in plant growth.”

640px-California's_Central_ValleyCan someone please explain how it is “much more beneficial,” that is, with releases of “less sulfur oxide and certain other pollutants” into the air if the “total amount of pollution” released is “roughly the same” regarding coal or wood pulp biomass burning? In my way of thinking, given a reduction in “sulfur oxide and certain other pollutants” regarding the ignition of wood pulp versus coal, this implies greater releases of one or more different pollutants in order for the total emitted pollution quantity to be nearly identical. This is how I see it.

Further investigation required? Probably.

– Alan Kandel