Biomass Solutions for Cleaner Cities
Should we step it down ?
The first solution is being pushed forward by national and local governments, all around the developed world : just consume less. Even if power - consumption per capita is slowly decreasing thanks to steady technological improvements -, it is futile to think that overall power needs will decrease. Indeed, on the other side of the scale, there are more and more people in the world, and this steadily-increasing population pool is getting fitted with more and more power-hungry equipment, such as cars, central heating, and technological gadgets. So energy needs are not going to shrink, that's a fact.
Then there is the tricky problem of urban development : cities need power to develop, but in a sustainable way, lest the area become unliveable.
The economical upside of biomass is that, while maintaining the MW/h to man/hour ratio at a decent level, it keeps the power-producing activity close by, thereby providing jobs to the city, instead of concentrating jobs away from urban areas in larger plants. The employee/Megawatt ratio is respectable, compared to nuclear plants, and must be considered both in the development and in the production phase. If the South Boston biomass plant hires only 26 workers on a full-time operating basis, a whole 250 were needed during the construction phase. The number may sound humble, but two aspects must be taken into perspective. The first is that biomass plants provide power at city- or district-level and therefore multiply that number of jobs by the number of areas it powers, and the other is that behind the biomass plant are hundreds of indirect jobs, which the wood and the waste management industry create to follow up on the biomass plant's needs.
Less pollution ?
A quick overview of the various means of power production will highlight the combined advantages of biomass technology. Nuclear power does provide the bulk of the need in energy, but suffers several hampers : difficultly scalable, runs on non-renewable resources and bears the inherent risk of nuclear accidents. Wind turbines have renewable and clean resources, but cannot be placed anywhere : the place has to be windy and away from urban areas, as the sight of them makes neighbouring eyes sore. Tidal turbine technology is still under development, mostly, and can of course only supply coastal areas. Gas and coal plants are criticized for their non-renewable energy sources and their unruly carbon footprint. That leaves biomass plants. They're clean, scalable, and run on renewable resources and even reduce the amount of organic waste in the city they provide power to in return.
The PSNH biomass plant in New Hampshire has, for instance, is a coal-converted-to-biomass plant, that feeds the city of Newington in power. The plant now cleanly burns half a million tons of organic matter, mostly supplied by the local wood industry, stimulating the local economy with roughly 95 million dollars per year. If the city were powered by a distant nuclear plant, the money paid by nearby customers would fly to a distant place, instead of brewing in the area. In addition, given that the basis for an energy plant was already there, the initial investment to set up the biomass facility was very low.
The french engineering firm CNIM have even improved the system : if the smell of wood smoke, in spite of its being objectively more pleasant than that of coal, disgruntles the neighbours, the Kogeban Biomass Plant has fitted its installation with a smoke-cleansing device, which purifies the smoke before it is released into the atmosphere, making the plant as odour-free as carbon-neutral. Kogeban supplies 100% of local needs in steam, and converts the rest into 16 megawatts of power, to supply the neighbouring homes and industry. The savings achieved through this joint operation (public and private) are equivalent to roughly 3.5 million cubic meters of natural gas, lightening the strain on non-renewable resources. The steam and energy consumers supplied by the plant can now rely on the fact that the money paid for the steam and power remains in the area and won't be sent away to Russia, for instance. The biomass technology is now mature : in return for a decent investment (under 100 million euros) the city of Nesles has achieved a milestone : producing its own power in the cleanest and most sustainable possible way.
Cities around the world are simultaneously struggling with clean-air and power problems. Perhaps cities like Newington, South Boston and Nesles will set examples and emulate. Biomass technology took a while to mature : now, then benchmark is reached, and the technology kills three birds with one stone. It provides clean power, keeps the air pure and even reduces the organic refuse of the city.