When we speak of “low carbon technologies”, we are referring to those that will produce power with vastly lower amounts of emissions than from conventional fossil fuels. These low carbon technologies might include such as things as hydroelectric power, wind, solar, geothermal or nuclear power. These technologies will also likely include those that produce low carbon fuels, called clean fuels. These fuels are those that result in less carbon pollution compared to petroleum-based fuels and that are produced in a sustainable manner. By looking at the total impact a fuel has on the environment and economy, one can make the assessment of its being a “low carbon” or “clean fuel.
As our expert, Dr. Gerald Kutney, wrote in 2013, low-carbon technologies fall into two separate categories:
- RES Forces – the direct production of electricity from a natural force that is not combusted, for example, wind, solar, hydro or geothermal
- RES Fuels – the production of electricity from the combustion of biomass-based materials; such materials are called biofuels and resulting electricity is referred to as bioenergy.
RES forces depend on the direct availability of the natural force (e.g., sun or wind) to generate energy and thus only produce intermittent power during times when the resource is available and are limited to regions where the resource is plentiful. Their strength is that they produce energy without consuming anything, as the energy is produced directly by a natural force.
RES fuels are similar to the traditional generation of electricity by fossil fuels. They are often designed to produce energy from existing turbines (i.e., power stations) and engines (i.e., traditional vehicles). Thus, bioenergy allows for continued use of traditional energy infrastructure. Biofuels produces firm power.
Their weakness is that they are not a perpetual force but a renewable fuel, and thus they consume something, namely biomass. Bioenergy is truly only renewable if the biomass supply is sustainable.
Among the sources of biomass are:
- Type 1 – PRIMARY RESIDUAL: Utilizes materials that have no “value” and will likely decompose or be burnt to release CO2; generally, the best source of biomass but limited quantities.
- Type 2 – SUSTAINABLE CROPS: Utilizes non-fallow and fallow lands; food vs. fuel and land utilization can be controversial; generally, the most expensive source of the three types.
- Type 3 – SECONDARY RESIDUAL: Utilizes consumer waste; although considered an environmental problem, such wastes are not considered to be renewable by all jurisdictions.
Basic biomass is generally bulky, which increases its transportation costs. Mechanical processes have been developed to improve its bulk density, but the material is still basically biomass. To develop properties more like fossil fuels and/or to further increase the energy density, the biomass must be transformed usually thermochemically, which modifies biomass using heat in the absence of oxygen. These processes not only yield much greater energy densities, but their fuel properties are chemically and physically more similar to coal than the original biomass. Liquid fuels can be produced thermochemically (syngas, bio-oil) as well, but are more commonly produced from chemical (biodiesel) or biochemical (ethanol from sugar or starch fermentation) processes. Biochemical processes can also produce methane and the related biogas.
Large renewable energy and biochemical consulting firms certainly have experts in biofuels and renewable fuels, and the more common areas like biomaterials, biomass and biomass power, feedstocks, and biotechnologies. In these larger consulting groups, one may also find very specialized expertise like catalytic valorization, carbon intensity, polymer recycling, FSMA compliance, cogeneration, combined heat & power, formulation chemistry, cannabinoids, solvents, sludge, solid state fermentation, soil amendment, solid recovered fuels, RFS2, carbon fiber, GMPE, Polymer Pyrolysis, Polypropylene, fuel additives, biopharmaceuticals, renewable technology, oilseed processing or water treatment.
Lee Enterprises Consulting is the world’s premier bioeconomy consulting group, with over 150 highly qualified experts serving in all these areas. Look at our experts and the services we provide. Most of our experts are also available to advise and serve as expert witnesses in bioeconomy litigation matters. For the larger projects, we specialize in putting together full service, interdisciplinary teams with one point of contact. Call us at 1+ (501) 833-8511 or email us for more information. See also: Low Carbon Fuel Standard.