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Is Biomass Gasification an Energy Cinderella Story?

August 23, 2009

Originally published in the Grand Rapids Business Journal on August 17, 2009 and republished with permission.

Biomass just doesn’t get any respect, in the opinion of Bruce Goodman, a partner at Varnum.

Biomass — stuff such as wood, grass clippings, corn stalks, turkey droppings, cow manure, landfill garbage, belly button lint — has energy in it and there are various ways to extract it. But biomass doesn’t get nearly as much ink as wind and solar energy.

Goodman, who practices law involving environmental, energy and construction issues, said people generally don’t even think of biomass when the talk is about alternative energy.

“Talking about waste is never glamorous,” he said. Talk about turkey litter and manure digesters just doesn’t give people a warm fuzzy feeling like talking about wind turbines spinning in the sky and solar panels soaking up the rays.

But biomass has “really leapfrogged over solar and wind energy when you consider the economics,” said Goodman. “Both solar and wind currently need and are receiving economic incentives. The economics for biomass, however, make it economically viable on its own.”

Don’t get him wrong: He’s not knocking wind or solar. Some of his clients are involved with wind and solar energy projects. It’s just that the public doesn’t seem to realize the potential in biomass energy.

Goodman is no neophyte. He’s been practicing law since 1979 and was involved in alternative energy projects going back to the mid-1980s. He really likes biomass gasification, a process in which a bunch of biomass is essentially “cooked” without oxygen, which forces gas out of it that can then be captured and burned to generate electricity or make steam.

Gasification is anything but new. A hundred years ago, cities all over America were burning coal gas in their street lights. Coal gas comes from putting coal through the gasification process.

“What is new is the ability to do it more and more efficiently,” said Goodman. Advances in metallurgy and engineering technology are going to make biomass gasification a big splash here in West Michigan very soon, he said.

Goodman said he understands that a gasification facility can be built to generate electricity at lower cost than wind or solar technology. Everybody’s tuned in to wind turbines and solar panels, but “biomass is really going to fool people,” said Goodman.

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