Hurricane Disasters and Debris: Don’t Let Renewable Fuel Go to Waste

In the aftermath of the ~1,000-mile wide “perfect storm” comprising Hurricane Sandy and an early winter front on the East Coast this week, emergency work crews have been dispatched to rapidly clean up roads and repair downed power lines. Much of this work involves removing fallen trees, grinding them down in industrial wood chippers, and trucking it all off to repositories. In this process, likely millions of tons of viable biomass fuel will be left to rot in landfills and other final resting places. There, the biomass is often comingled with contaminating debris, making it unfit for energy recovery.

We can and should build better biomass fuel recover plans into our disaster response plans at the local, state, and federal level. Of course, after safety concerns are addressed, the first priority, by far, of any emergency response is to return the area to full economic and societal functionality as fast as possible. But part of that should include a plan to use a free and (unexpected) abundant renewable fuel source.

Following Katrina’s wake in 2004, enough biomass debris was created to completely fuel every biomass plant in the U.S. for a full year. In fact, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused the largest forestry disaster in U.S. history, downing over 320 million trees and clearing 25 times as much forest as the 1980 eruption of Mount. St. Helens. Unfortunately, most was sent to landfills or left elsewhere in giant piles to basically sit and decay.

Japan’s Astonishing Example

Amazingly, Japan captured over 22 million tons of biomass from the March, 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami This amount of biomass can produce roughly 22 million megawatt hours of electrical energy, enough to support about 2.5 percent of Japan’s electrical needs for a year. This is more electricity than Puerto Rico, Nigeria, or Iceland uses in a year!

Japan has aggressive plans to segregate this fuel as well as build several biomass plants to utilize it—despite two major technical challenges in energy conversion.

First, much of it was soaked in salty/brackish water, which can leave salt deposits in the biomass that corrode biomass energy conversion systems (boilers and gasifiers). Fortunately, this is not a problem for much of the in-land debris related to the high wind damage of Sandy and most U.S. hurricanes.

Second, and much more daunting, the Fukushima nuclear disaster left a portion of the biomass contaminated with detectable radiation. Undoubtedly, scrutiny of the biomass prior to energy conversion will be tight, and it’s probably unlikely that we would support this extreme of an effort to enable energy conversion on our shores.

Planning and Infrastructure

Local, state, and federal emergency response systems all have plans for disaster debris cleanup but they rarely involve much resolution for debris reuse. Recovery, segregation, and processing of biomass fuel, as well as assessment of regional biomass fuel usage opportunities, need to be deeply assessed in these plans well in advance of any disaster in order to make use of a reasonable portion of the downed biomass fuel.

Certainly, some opportunistic recovery of weather-event biomass fuel occurs, albeit on a rather limited basis. For instance, biomass plants in Western New York were able to capture some biomass caused by a freak winter-like storm in October of 2006. Most of the recovered biomass (hundreds of thousands of tons), however, rotted at the bottom of quarries, of value to no one other than the quarries who took in attractive dumping fees, driven by sizeable emergency relief spending. Similarly, there was a limited amount of biomass power in the northeast derived from debris generated by last year’s Hurricane Irene.

To be fair, over the past four years the federal Woody Biomass Utilization Group, a joint effort of the U.S. Departments of Energy, Interior, and Agriculture, has issued action plans for woody debris management and wood utilization from wind events and offers an information hub. But the realization of these plans into tangible action has been limited.

Also, in 2011 Columbia University issued a debris management report specific to New York City, which included a formal recommendation to find ways for beneficial reuse and appropriate processing of biomass for energy, including clean debris segregation.

Even with advanced planning, identifying viable biomass fuel “offtake” opportunities is not easy. In some areas of the country there may be little infrastructure to enable biomass processing. What’s more, where it does exist, clean tree/foliage-based biomass must often be segregated upfront from building-related wood waste. Fuel-handling systems can be disrupted with small changes in processing, such as the size and density of the wood chips and the way they are produced, and biomass boilers can be fickle to low BTU content (e.g. if the wood is too “green”) and even the type of plant matter (certain trees/plants contain boiler-damaging minerals).

All these disclaimers aside, it is not an insurmountable challenge in some areas of the county—particularly the upper Northeast where biomass power and combined-heat-and-power plants are more common—to adopt a regional plan to substantially increase the amount of disaster debris being beneficially captured today.

Most biomass plants in this country have substantial fuel sourcing flexibility. This is partially due to fundamental biomass supplier reliability issues but also due to intended purchase bandwidth for “spot” market opportunities. Advanced planning would be critical to enabling viable temporary storage of windfall (literally) volumes. In addition, many coal plants are potential candidates for biomass co-firing, and if their feedstock specification criteria were known in advance, that would greatly increase the overall opportunity.

The Take-Away

As Reinventing Fire clearly communicates and we at RMI stress, the centralized, transmission-dependent grid is fragile and is extremely susceptible to extended outages due to massive and tragic weather events such as Sandy. These disasters provide an unfortunate opportunity to re-think our grid infrastructure. We are heartened to see the advantages of a distributed, localized micro-grid infrastructure now being more broadly promoted.

But in addition to grid stability matters and the ominous potential effects of increased global warming, these extreme weather events may also teach us more about the restorative use of resources. Perhaps the beneficial capture of biomass debris could begin to become a larger part of that conversation.