Alternative Alternatives

With solar and wind energies maturing as recognized alternative-power sources, there are other alternatives providing clean power on scales both large and small. These power generators are distinctive in how they create electricity and are a growing business for electrical contractors (ECs) that take note of them.

Biomass is the most commercially established “other” alternative energy. Popularly used to create biofuels, such energy sources are being used for on-site power cogeneration or distributed generation. Biofuel is sustainable, offering carbon-neutral emissions output. A nonfossil-fuel source, its most popular “feedstocks,” as they are called, include wood waste, agricultural residues (straw, manure, grasses) and municipal solid waste. When used to create energy, feedstocks become the fuel for biopower.

Biofuel is certainly not a new idea. Wood was North America’s primary heating source until coal. By the 1950s, electricity and natural gas displaced wood heat. The energy crisis of the 1970s brought new attention, research and new ideas to biomass as an alternative-energy source. By the 1980s, biomass power plants were being built in North America. Today, the Biomass Power Association (BPA) in Portland, Maine, represents 80 biomass power plants in 20 states across the country. Biopower systems are typically direct-fired, co-fired, gasification or modular (transportable).

A growing sector
Industrial Info Resources (IIR) in Texas, a provider of global market intelligence for industrial, heavy manufacturing and energy markets, reports more than $3 billion in U.S. biomass power-generation projects are scheduled to begin construction this year. Research by Biomass Power and Thermal magazine reveals a 20 percent increase in proposed biomass projects going into this year.

The top 10 states with the most operating plants and proposed projects are California (22), Florida (16), New York (14), New Hampshire (14), Maine (11), Michigan (11), Massachusetts (10), Minnesota (9), Pennsylvania (9) and Connecticut (8). In addition, the California Energy Commission has set an ambitious goal to add as much as 2,200 megawatts (MW) of biomass power by 2020, part of that state’s goal to achieve 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by that year.

Though biomass currently plays a relatively small role in the U.S. electric power-generation market-—it represents about 10 gigawatts (GW) of electricity generation, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy—the BPA reports biomass supplies more than half of the United States’ renewable electricity. This niche will continue to grow along with other alternative energies, at a pace partially dictated by the price of natural gas. In its Annual Energy Outlook 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects renewables will constitute 14 percent of all electric-power generation, just behind nuclear (17 percent) by 2035. In the U.S. consumption of liquid fuels, biofuels are projected to make up 3 percent.

Success in landfill gas
Though a niche market, ECs are finding competitive work in alternative-power generation. Some contractors have been involved in such work for years. O’Connell Electric Co. Inc., Victor, N.Y., entered the world of landfill gas-to-energy some 20 years ago when it was approached by representatives from a county landfill.

“In New York, landfills are required to flare off the gas they produce or do something with it,” said Tim Ehmann, senior manager for O’Connell Electric. “Some choose to generate electricity, capturing and reprocessing the gas from the landfill.”

Producing wholesale power for utilities is a major application. But there are others, too. Interface, a carpet tile manufacturer based in LaGrange, Ga., uses the city’s landfill gas to supplant its facility’s natural gas usage by 20 percent.

Landfill gas is about 40–60 percent methane, with the remainder being mostly carbon dioxide (CO2). Typical landfill-to-gas projects use compressors, blowers, switchgear, engine controls, gas compression controls, power distribution, lighting and a utility substation. Such operations offer many opportunities for the savvy electrical contractor.

“The gas has to be conditioned before it goes into a generator,” Ehmann said. “There are mechanical concerns and specialty engineering that goes into the gas preparation. Essentially, you collect, pressurize and regulate the gas flow. We needed to partner with specialty engineers to design the mechanics.”

Ehmann said today’s major landfill gas-to-energy customers are larger waste generators, such as Waste Management Inc. That company asserts that its landfill gas projects create enough energy to power 400,000 homes every day and offsets almost 2 million tons of coal per year. Waste Management currently has 110 landfill gas facilities.

“In the last six years, we’ve seen an increase in alternative- energy developers (private or co-op, biomass people) working to install power generators for landfill gas and utilize the carbon credits,” Ehmann said. “They are calling us.”

O’Connell Electric also is performing other biopower work involving large dairy farms. Central Vermont Public Service calls it “cow power.” It has six Vermont farms providing power to the grid that are estimated to produce between 0.78 and 3.5 megawatt--hours of electricity per year. The process is simple. An anaerobic digester creates biogas from dry, processed manure. The biogas fuels a modified natural gas engine-powered generator that, in turn, creates electricity that is fed into the grid. O’Connell Electric is involved in two such projects providing the wiring for the biofuel process and power generators and the interconnections and relay work to the grid. A farm might generate more power than it can use and would then sell the power back to the utility.

“Our work in biogas and landfill gas is really side work for us,” Ehmann said. “It falls in between two existing divisions: line and alternative-energy work. Relay work and power protection and testing are services we provide to pull this project work together. We’ve seen a rebirth in this work, in part due to rates going up and its rediscovery as an alternative-energy green power.”

Ehmann said his company has to compete.

“The electrical interconnection business competition is maybe one in 10 instead of one in 100 for us,” he said. “We have the history, which helps us win the work. We also have our technicians earn their certification in the commissioning of the electrical interconnection (relays and utility’s relay testing). This has helped open the doors for new and repeat business. Ultimately, our customers turn to us to help maintain their systems.”

In New York, landfill gas operations need to be certified through the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), in part, so the operations can properly avoid faults and be able to properly disconnect from the grid at the utility’s request.

Opening doors
Newkirk Electric Associates Inc., based in Muskegon, Mich., also has more than a 20-year history with biomass projects. It also works with dairy farms helping design, power and “interconnect” digester sites for electric power generation and for producing pipeline-grade biogas. It, too, is involved in a number of landfill gas-to-energy projects—55 to date. The company has its own power and controls specialists that allow it to offer project design.

“Biopower represents a very broad customer base, ranging from major utilities and municipal utilities, to paper mills using its industrial paper waste for energy, to farmers using livestock manure,” said Mary Carter, vice president of business development for Newkirk. “There seems to be endless creativity in biomass projects. We just finished a project that used human solid waste, a digester and ethanol to create power for a wastewater treatment plant. We did the electrical work and construction. This technology is evolving.”

A family business now 50 years old, Newkirk Electric started out assisting utilities in their power generation and distribution. It developed a favored reputation. Like O’Connell Electric, their first biomass project was a landfill gas project in the 1980s.

“The majority of our work in biomass is landfill gas, but in the early ’90s, we were the primary EC for two large biomass utility projects,” Carter said. “The 36.2-MW Grayling station burns wood waste from local sawmills and the foresting industry. The 35-MW Genesee Power Station burns up to 700 tons of wood waste each day. The power is tied into the grid to produce energy. Both power stations are owned by the utility.”

Ever the mother of invention, Newkirk Electric is working with Hilarides Dairy in Lindsay, Calif., to design and construct a biogas-upgrading skid that takes a manure digester’s raw biogas and cleans and compresses it for use in natural gas burning vehicles. The dairy’s semi trucks are the first cow-powered trucks in the United States.

“Biopower holds some advantages over solar and wind. It doesn’t have the intermittent power dips and has no need for energy storage,” Carter said. “It is also available 24/7.”

While biopower is a small market for Newkirk Electric, like O’Connell Electric, it is still a key sector for the company and has grown significantly in the past 5 years. The firm does business across the country and has completed projects in 34 states from California to Florida, where Newkirk Electric has an office. The company is currently involved in 10 projects outside Michigan.

“For interested ECs, it depends on what role they want to play in this green-energy work,” Carter said. “If it’s just electrical install, power is power. At the very least, develop partnerships with mechanical contractors. If you want to be an added resource to your customer, you have to develop specialized skills. For us, its electrical controls, switchgear, facility interface, line work, substation design and build, and helping fill out paperwork for the cogeneration connection with the utility. Knowing the behind-the-scenes required to successfully running biomass and landfill gas projects puts you ahead of the pack as go after this work.”

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Gavin, LEED Green Associate, is the owner of Gavo Communications, a sustainability-focused marketing services firm serving the energy and construction industries. He can be reached at .

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