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IMSE, Forestry partner to uncover beneficial emissions reduction partnerships

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, if implemented, would require states to find ways to significantly lower their carbon emissions. One way they could accomplish this is by burning less coal and more woody biomass, a carbon neutral source of energy.

Portrait of Ron McGarvey

Assistant Professor Ron McGarvey and doctoral student Bayram Dundar teamed with Associate Professor of Forestry Francisco Aguilar to produce “Identifying optimal multi-state collaborations for reducing CO2 emissions by co-firing biomass in coal-burning power plants,” in a recent edition of Computers & Industrial Engineering.

The forest industry already creates plenty of residual woody biomass and certain coal burning facilities are set up to accommodate equipment upgrades in order to burn such biomass. But some states create more biomass than others, and some have more biomass-ready facilities than others. So what’s the best way for states to collaborate to hit the sweet spot of low cost and lowered carbon emissions?

Researchers at the University of Missouri, including members of the Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department, identified the most efficient ways states can partner to maximize renewable energy and cut carbon emissions. IMSE Assistant Professor Ron McGarvey and doctoral student Bayram Dundar teamed with Associate Professor of Forestry Francisco Aguilar to produce “Identifying optimal multi-state collaborations for reducing CO2 emissions by co-firing biomass in coal-burning power plants,” in a recent edition of Computers & Industrial Engineering.

“Co-firing is a technology that a lot of people view as a bridge until we are able to fully deploy large-scale, zero-emission energy,” McGarvey said. “You take a coal-fired power plant, and you burn something else in the boiler in addition to coal. In this instance, we’re talking about woody biomass.”

The research team analyzed which power plants in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota could accommodate minimal or moderate upgrades to burn woody biomass. They then examined the amount of biomass produced within a 90-kilometer radius of the plant, and by combining those data sets, they discovered the most efficient partnerships depending on the priority outcome.

“We had a pretty good idea based on the technical characteristics of these plants how much woody biomass they could burn. That’s one side of the coin,” McGarvey said. “The other side is how much woody biomass exists nearby? If you’re somewhere that doesn’t have these sources nearby, you’re not a good candidate for co-firing. Francisco and one of his former associates developed what’s really the most detailed level data in the U.S. on the availability on this kind of biomass for co-firing candidate power plants.”

Certain partnerships make more sense for Missouri, such as Iowa, if the state wants to reach modest reductions in carbon emissions. Partnerships with states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin would yield even larger emissions reductions, although at increased overall cost. In the end, the team identified a range of alternative partnerships that could equitably balance both partner states’ costs and shared emission reductions.

“Wood biomass already contributes about a quarter of all renewable energy consumed by the U.S. and often is overlooked by public policy initiatives,” Aguilar said in a news release. “We already have plenty of biomass available to burn. In fact, we could greatly increase the amount of biomass we harvest from forests and still maintain healthy forest ecosystems. The problem has been that not enough information has been shared among states, power utilities and power plants to allow them to work together efficiently to maximize bio-energy production. Our new study has accomplished this for the Midwest, and this work could easily be replicated throughout the entire country.”

The research was funded in part by assistance from the sustainable energy initiative program within the Mizzou Advantage and U.S. Department of Agriculture McIntire-Stennis project MO-MCNR005.