As Biomass Power Rises, a Wood-Fired Plant Is Planned in Texas

The city of Austin, Tex., approved plans on Thursday for a huge plant that will burn waste wood to make electricity, the latest sign of rising interest in a long-dormant form of renewable energy.

When completed in 2012, the East Texas plant will be able to generate 100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 75,000 homes. That is small by the standards of coal-fired power plants, but plants fueled by wood chips, straw and the like — organic materials collectively known as biomass — have rarely achieved such scale.

Austin Energy, a city-owned utility, has struck a $2.3 billion, 20-year deal to be the sole purchaser of electricity from Nacogdoches Power, the company that will build the plant for an undisclosed sum. On Thursday, Austin’s City Council unanimously approved the deal, which would bring the Austin utility closer to its goal of getting 30 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

“We saw this plant as very important because it gives us a diversity of fuels,” said Roger Duncan, general manager of Austin Energy. “Unlike solar and wind, we can run this plant night or day, summer or winter.”

More than 100 biomass power plants are connected to the electrical grid in the United States, according to Bill Carlson, former chairman of USA Biomass, an industry group. Most are in California or the Northeast, but some of the new ones are under development in the South, a region with a large wood pulp industry.

The last big wave of investment in the biomass industry came during the 1980s and early 1990s. Interest is rising again as states push to include more renewable power in their mix of electricity generation.

Last week, Georgia Power asked state regulators to approve the conversion of a coal plant into a 96-megawatt biomass plant. An additional 50-megawatt plant in East Texas is expected to be under construction by September.

Mike Whiting, chief executive of Decker Energy International, a developer and owner of four biomass plants around the country, estimates 15 to 20 new biomass plants are proposed in the Southeast, though not all will be built. The region is, he said, “the best part of the U.S. for growing trees.”

In California, which has the most biomass plants in the country, momentum is reviving after years of decline. The number of biomass plants has dropped to fewer than 30, from 48 in the early 1990s, because of the closing of many sawmills and the energy crisis early this decade, said Phil Reese of the California Biomass Energy Alliance. Six to eight of the mothballed plants are gearing up to restart, Mr. Reese said, helping California meet its renewable energy goals.

At least three biomass plants have been proposed in Connecticut, and another three in Massachusetts — though last week one of these, a $200 million, 50-megawatt biomass plant proposed for the western part of the state, experienced a regulatory setback because of concerns about truck traffic.

Some environmental groups have opposed the Nacogdoches plant. Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter, said the plant was not “as clean as it could be” in terms of emissions. He also criticized the lack of a competitive bidding process to build the plant.

Pulp and paper companies operating in wooded East Texas have also opposed the plant, which will require a giant amount of wood residue — one million tons each year. They are concerned that there is not enough wood for their industry and the plant. But Tony Callendrello, vice president of Nacogdoches Power, said the company would use only discarded forest residues, mill waste and the like.

“We have no need — and no intention — to go after anything that the forest-products companies would be using in their production,” he said.


Earth Policy Institute
Plan B Update
For Immediate Release
August 19, 2008

Jonathan G. Dorn

With fossil fuel prices escalating and countries searching for ways to reduce oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, capturing the earth’s heat for power generation is garnering new attention. First begun in Larderello, Italy, in 1904, electricity generation using geothermal energy is now taking place in 24 countries, 5 of which use it to produce 15 percent or more of their total electricity. In the first half of 2008, total world installed geothermal power capacity passed 10,000 megawatts and now produces enough electricity to meet the needs of 60 million people, roughly the population of the United Kingdom. In 2010, capacity could increase to 13,500 megawatts across 46 countries–equivalent to 27 coal-fired power plants.

Originating from the earth’s core and from the decay of naturally occurring isotopes such as those of uranium, thorium, and potassium, the heat energy in the uppermost six miles of the planet’s crust is vast–50,000 times greater than the energy content of all oil and natural gas resources. Chile, Peru, Mexico, the United States, Canada, Russia, China, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries along the Ring of Fire (an area of high volcanic activity encircling the basin of the Pacific Ocean) are rich in geothermal energy. Another geothermal hot spot is the Great Rift Valley of Africa, which includes such countries as Kenya and Ethiopia. Worldwide, 39 countries with a cumulative population of over 750 million people have geothermal resources sufficient to meet all their electricity needs. (See data at

Typically, power generation using the earth’s heat required underground pockets of high-temperature water or steam to drive a steam turbine. Now, new technologies that use liquids with low boiling points in closed-loop heat exchange systems allow electricity to be generated at much lower temperatures. This breakthrough is making geothermal power generation viable in countries such as Germany that are not known for their geothermal resources and is one reason why the number of countries using the earth’s heat to generate electricity could almost double by 2010.

One advantage of geothermal power plants, beyond the benefit of producing electricity from a low-carbon, indigenous energy source with no fuel costs, is that they provide baseload power 24 hours a day. Storage or backup-power is not required.

The United States leads the world in generating electricity from the earth’s heat. As of August 2008, geothermal capacity in the United States totaled nearly 2,960 megawatts across seven states–Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. California, with 2,555 megawatts of installed capacity–more than any country in the world–produces almost 5 percent of its electricity from geothermal energy. Most of this capacity is installed in an area called the Geysers, a geologically active region north of San Francisco.

Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which made geothermal power generation eligible to receive the federal renewable energy production tax credit, electricity generated from geothermal resources now costs the same as fossil-fuel-based electricity in many markets in the western United States. With favorable economics, the geothermal industry is experiencing a surge in activity. As of August 2008, some 97 confirmed new geothermal power projects with up to 4,000 megawatts of capacity were under development in 13 states, with some 550 megawatts of this already in the construction phase. Expected to create 7,000 permanent full-time jobs, the new capacity will include numerous large-scale projects such as the 350-megawatt and 245-megawatt projects by Vulcan Power near Salt Wells and Aurora, Nevada; the 155-megawatt project by CalEnergy near the Salton Sea in southern California; and the 120-megawatt project by Davenport Power near the Newberry Volcano in Oregon.

Current development is only scratching the surface of what is possible. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that with emerging low-temperature technologies, at least 260,000 megawatts of U.S. geothermal resources could be developed. A study led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that an investment of roughly $1 billion in geothermal research and development over 15 years (roughly the cost of a single new coal-fired power plant) could lead to commercial deployment of 100,000 megawatts by 2050.

In Europe, the top countries in geothermal energy development are Italy with 810 megawatts and Iceland with 420 megawatts. Italy is expected to nearly double its installed capacity by 2020. Iceland, with 27 percent of its electricity needs met by harnessing the earth’s heat, is number one in the world in the share of its electricity generated from geothermal energy. Germany, with only 8 megawatts of installed capacity, lags behind but is beginning to see the effects of a feed-in tariff of €0.15 (US $0.23) per kilowatt-hour that was implemented in 2004. Almost 150 plants are now in the pipeline in Germany, with most of the activity centered in Bavaria.

Ten of the top 15 countries producing geothermal electricity are in the developing world. The Philippines, which generates 23 percent of its electricity from geothermal energy, is the world’s second biggest producer behind the United States. The Philippines aims to increase its installed geothermal capacity by 2013 by more than 60 percent, to 3,130 megawatts. Indonesia, the world’s third largest producer, has even bigger plans, calling for 6,870 megawatts of new geothermal capacity to be developed over the next 10 years–equal to nearly 30 percent of its current electricity generating capacity from all sources. Pertamina, the Indonesian state petroleum company, anticipates building most of this new capacity–adding its name to the list of conventional energy companies that are beginning to diversify into the renewable energy market.

The geothermal development potential of the Great Rift Valley in Africa is enormous. Kenya is the frontrunner in the effort to tap this potential. In late June 2008, President Mwai Kibaki announced a plan to install some 1,700 megawatts of new geothermal capacity within 10 years–13 times greater than the current capacity and one-and-a-half times greater than the country’s total electricity generating capacity from all sources. Djibouti, aided by Reykjavik Energy Invest’s commitment to provide $150 million for geothermal energy projects in Africa, aims to tap the earth’s heat to produce nearly all of its electricity within the next few years. Further stimulating development is the African Rift Geothermal Development Facility (ARGeo), an international organization partly funded by the World Bank that seeks to increase the use of geothermal energy in the Great Rift Valley by protecting investors from losses during early stages of development.

Industry, which accounts for more than 30 percent of world energy consumption, is also starting to turn to reliable, low-cost geothermal energy. In Papua New Guinea, a 56-megawatt geothermal power station owned by Lihir Gold Limited, a leading global gold company, meets 75 percent of corporate power demand at a notably lower cost than oil-fired power generation. In Iceland, five geothermal power plants planned near Reykjavik, which are slated to have a total capacity of 225 megawatts when completed in 2012, will provide electricity to new aluminum refineries.

Despite development potential measured in the hundreds of thousands of megawatts, tapping this renewable source of power is still in its infancy. But as more and more national leaders begin to see renewable energy as a cost-effective, low-carbon alternative to price-volatile, carbon-intensive fossil fuels, geothermal power generation is expected to move rapidly from marginal to mainstream.

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For more information on Earth Policy Institute’s goal of 200,000 MW of CSP worldwide, part of a plan to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020, see Chapters 11-13 in Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, available at for free downloading.

Solar Thermal Power Coming to a Boil

Solar Thermal Power Coming to a Boil

By Jonathan G. Dorn
Earth Policy Institute

After emerging in 2006 from 15 years of hibernation, the solar thermal power industry experienced a surge in 2007, with 100 megawatts of new capacity coming online worldwide. During the 1990s, cheap fossil fuels, combined with a loss of state and federal incentives, put a damper on solar thermal power development. However, recent increases in energy prices, escalating concerns about global climate change, and fresh economic incentives are renewing interest in this technology.

Considering that the energy in sunlight reaching the earth in just 70 minutes is equivalent to annual global energy consumption, the potential for solar power is virtually unlimited. With concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) capacity expected to double every 16 months over the next five years, worldwide installed CSP capacity will reach 6,400 megawatts in 2012—14 times the current capacity. (See data.)

Unlike solar photovoltaics (PVs), which use semiconductors to convert sunlight directly into electricity, CSP plants generate electricity using heat. Much like a magnifying glass, reflectors focus sunlight onto a fluid-filled vessel. The heat absorbed by the fluid is used to generate steam that drives a turbine to produce electricity. Power generation after sunset is possible by storing excess heat in large, insulated tanks filled with molten salt. Since CSP plants require high levels of direct solar radiation to operate efficiently, deserts make ideal locations.

Two big advantages of CSP over conventional power plants are that the electricity generation is clean and carbon-free and, since the sun is the energy source, there are no fuel costs. Energy storage in the form of heat is also significantly cheaper than battery storage of electricity, providing CSP with an economical means to overcome intermittency and deliver dispatchable power.

The United States and Spain are leading the world in the development of solar thermal power, with a combined total of over 5,600 megawatts of new capacity expected to come online by 2012. Representing over 90 percent of the projected new capacity by 2012, the output from these plants would be enough to meet the electrical needs of more than 1.7 million homes.

The largest solar thermal power complex in operation today is the Solar Electricity Generating Station in the Mojave Desert in California. Coming online between 1985 and 1991, the 354-megawatt complex has been producing enough power for 100,000 homes for almost two decades. In June 2007, the 64-megawatt Nevada Solar One plant became the first multi-megawatt commercial CSP plant to come online in the United States in 16 years.

Today, more than a dozen new CSP plants are being planned in the United States, with some 3,100 megawatts expected to come online by 2012. (See data.) Some impressive CSP projects in the planning stages include the 553-megawatt Mojave Solar Park in California, the 500-megawatt Solar One and 300-megawatt Solar Two projects in California, a 300-megawatt facility in Florida, and the 280-megawatt Solana plant in Arizona.

In Spain, the first commercial-scale CSP plant to begin operation outside the United States since the mid-1980s came online in 2007: the 11-megawatt PS10 tower. The tower is part of the 300-megawatt Solúcar Platform, which, when completed in 2013, will contain ten CSP plants and produce enough electricity to supply 153,000 homes while preventing 185,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions annually. All told, more than 60 plants are in the pipeline in Spain, with 2,570 megawatts expected to come online by 2012.

Economic and policy incentives are partly responsible for the renewed interest in CSP. The incentives in the United States include a 30-percent federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar through the end of 2008, which has good prospects for being extended, and Renewable Portfolio Standards in 26 states. California requires that utilities get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and Nevada requires 20 percent by 2015, with at least 5 percent from solar power. The primary incentive in Spain is a feed-in tariff that guarantees that utilities will pay power producers €0.26 (40¢) per kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by CSP plants for 25 years.

In the southwestern United States, the cost of electricity from CSP plants (including the federal ITC) is roughly 13–17¢ per kilowatt-hour, meaning that CSP with thermal storage is competitive today with simple-cycle natural gas-fired power plants. The U.S. Department of Energy aims to reduce CSP costs to 7–10¢ per kilowatt-hour by 2015 and to 5–7¢ per kilowatt-hour by 2020, making CSP competitive with fossil-fuel-based power sources.

Outside the United States and Spain, regulatory incentives in France, Greece, Italy, and Portugal are expected to stimulate the installation of 3,200 megawatts of CSP capacity by 2020. China anticipates building 1,000 megawatts by that time. Other countries developing CSP include Australia, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. (See map.)

Using CSP plants to power electric vehicles could further reduce CO2 emissions and provide strategic advantages by relaxing dependence on oil. In Israel, a tender issued by the Ministry for National Infrastructures for the construction of CSP plants and a 19.4¢ per kilowatt-hour feed-in tariff for solar power systems are sparking interest in developing up to 250 megawatts of CSP in the Negev Desert. This would produce enough electricity to run the 100,000 electric cars that Project Better Place, a company focused on building an electric personal transportation system, is planning to put on Israeli roads by the end of 2010.

A study by Ausra, a solar energy company based in California, indicates that over 90 percent of fossil fuel–generated electricity in the United States and the majority of U.S. oil usage for transportation could be eliminated using solar thermal power plants—and for less than it would cost to continue importing oil. The land requirement for the CSP plants would be roughly 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers, the equivalent of 15 percent of the land area of Nevada). While this may sound like a large tract, CSP plants use less land per equivalent electrical output than large hydroelectric dams when flooded land is included, or than coal plants when factoring in land used for coal mining. Another study, published in Scientific American in January 2008, proposes using CSP and PV plants to produce 69 percent of U.S. electricity and 35 percent of total U.S. energy, including transportation, by 2050.

CSP plants on less than 0.3 percent of the desert areas of North Africa and the Middle East could generate enough electricity to meet the needs of these two regions plus the European Union. Realizing this, the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation—an initiative of The Club of Rome, the Hamburg Climate Protection Foundation, and the National Energy Research Center of Jordan—conceived the DESERTEC Concept in 2003. This plan to develop a renewable energy network to transmit power to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa calls for 100,000 megawatts of CSP to be built throughout the Middle East and North Africa by 2050. Electricity delivery to Europe would occur via direct current transmission cables across the Mediterranean. Taking the lead in making the concept a reality, Algeria plans to build a 3,000-kilometer cable between the Algerian town of Adrar and the German city of Aachen to export 6,000 megawatts of solar thermal power by 2020.

If the projected annual growth rate of CSP through 2012 is maintained to 2020, global installed CSP capacity would exceed 200,000 megawatts—equivalent to 135 coal-fired power plants. With billions of dollars beginning to flow into the CSP industry and U.S. restrictions on carbon emissions imminent, CSP is primed to reach such capacity.

Copyright © 2008 Earth Policy Institute