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Converting an Industrial Coal Boiler to Run on Biomass Pellets:

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Coal vs Pellets

The industrial sector is one of the largest contributors to global carbon emissions, accounting for approximately 23% of the total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. As the world grapples with the effects of climate change and the urgent need to reduce our carbon footprint, industries are under increasing pressure to transition towards more sustainable and eco-friendly practices. One such solution gaining traction is the conversion of industrial coal boilers to run on biomass pellets.

First, let’s understand what each of these fuels are. Coal is a fossil fuel that is formed from the remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. It is a non-renewable energy source and is primarily used in power plants to generate electricity. On the other hand, Biomass pellets are a type of renewable biomass fuel made from organic materials such as wood, agricultural waste, and energy crops. These materials are compressed into small, dense pellets that are highly efficient and have a high energy density. Biomass pellets are considered a carbon-neutral fuel source as the carbon emitted during their combustion is offset by the carbon absorbed during their growth.

Why Convert Industrial Coal Boilers to Run on Biomass Pellets?

One of the main differences between coal and biomass pellets is their impact on the environment. Coal is known to be a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. The burning of coal also releases pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter, which can have serious health impacts on both humans and the environment. In contrast, biomass pellets produce significantly lower levels of emissions and pollutants compared to coal. This is because biomass pellets are considered to be a carbon-neutral fuel source. The carbon dioxide released when burning biomass pellets is equal to the amount that was absorbed by the plants during their growth. This means that using biomass pellets for energy does not contribute to an increase in overall carbon emissions

According to a study by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), replacing coal with biomass reduces carbon emissions by up to 98%.

Another important difference between coal and biomass pellets is their availability and renewability. As mentioned earlier, coal is a non-renewable energy source, meaning it cannot be replaced once it is used up. The reserves of coal are also limited, and it is estimated that we may run out of coal in the next 100-200 years. In contrast, biomass pellets are considered to be a renewable energy source because the materials used to make them can be replenished. As long as there is organic waste being produced, biomass pellets can continue to be made. This makes biomass pellets a more sustainable option for the long-term use of energy.

In terms of energy efficiency, both coal and biomass pellets have their pros and cons. Coal has a higher energy density, meaning it produces more heat when burned compared to biomass pellets. This means that less coal is needed to produce the same amount of energy as biomass pellets. However, coal also produces more ash and requires more maintenance and cleaning of the equipment used to burn it. Biomass pellets, on the other hand, have a lower energy density but produce significantly less ash and require less maintenance. When considering the overall energy efficiency, it is important to also take into account the transportation of these fuels. Since coal mining sites are usually located far from urban areas, it requires a lot of transportation to bring them to power plants. This results in higher carbon emissions and costs. In contrast, biomass pellets can be produced locally, reducing the need for long-distance transportation.

One of the major benefits of using biomass pellets over coal is its impact on local economies and job creation. Coal mining has been a major source of employment in many regions, but with the decline in its use and the push for cleaner energy sources, many workers have lost their jobs. On the other hand, biomass pellet production can create new job opportunities in rural areas where there is an abundance of organic waste material. This can help boost local economies and provide new employment opportunities for those affected by the decline in coal mining.

Challenges Faced When Converting an Industrial Coal Boiler to Run on Biomass Pellets

While the benefits of converting industrial coal boilers to run on biomass pellets are clear, the process itself is not without some challenges. Below are some of the main challenges that industries face when making the switch.

1. Infrastructure and Equipment Upgrades

The first step in converting an industrial coal boiler to run on biomass pellets is to assess the existing infrastructure and equipment. In most cases, significant upgrades and modifications are NOT required to ensure that the boiler can safely and efficiently burn biomass pellets. Some upgrades to the boiler fuel feeding system maybe needed due to the lower pellet density and calorific value.

2. Fuel Supply and Storage

Another challenge is securing a reliable and sustainable supply of biomass pellets. Unlike coal, which can be stored and transported easily, biomass pellets need to be stored out of the protection of rain, coupled with the lower density and calorific value, biomass pellets need roughly double the storage space. Industries must also consider the transportation costs and logistics of sourcing biomass pellets, which can vary depending on their location.

It is always important to remember that you don’t need to burn coal one day and biomass the next day. It can be a slow transition using an increasing blend of biomass over time – typically around two years. This allows proving of the biomass supply chain, logistics, equipment & combustion considerations; with only minimum risk to your energy or process operations.

Biomass Pellets burning alongside coal
25% Rice Husk pellets burning alongside coal in an Industrial Boiler
  1. Technical Expertise

    Converting an industrial coal boiler to run on biomass pellets may require specialist engineers to assess, design, and carry out any identified modifications to switch to biomass. However, once this work is performed, a well-trained boiler operator should be able to adjust the general boiler settings to allow the pellets to burn successfully, this should be done against exhaust analysis equipment to understand when the optimum setpoint is achieved.

  2. Cost Considerations

    The cost of infrastructure upgrades, equipment modifications, and sourcing biomass pellets can add up. However, it’s important to note that these costs are often offset by long-term savings from reduced fuel costs and incentives offered for transitioning to cleaner fuels. Additionally, carbon trading and/or off-setting can lead to significant further cost reductions and can dramatically lower the overall fuel costs.

    Benefits of Converting an Industrial Coal Boiler to Run on Biomass Pellets

    Despite some challenges, the benefits of converting an industrial coal boiler to run on biomass pellets far outweigh the costs in the long run. Here are some of the key benefits that industries can experience from making the switch:

    1. Reduced Carbon Footprint

    As mentioned earlier, converting to biomass pellets can significantly reduce carbon emissions from industrial boilers. This not only helps in mitigating climate change but also helps industries meet their sustainability goals.

    2. Cost Savings

    Biomass pellets are typically cheaper than coal, allowing industries to save on their fuel costs in the long run. Additionally, some governments offer incentives and tax breaks for industries that transition to cleaner fuels, further reducing costs. There is also the option of trading or offsetting the carbon saving to potentially even give free fuel!!

    3. Cleaner Air Quality

    By emitting fewer pollutants, biomass pellets contribute to improved air quality, creating a healthier working environment for employees and reducing the negative impact on surrounding communities.

    4. Positive Public Image

    Converting an industrial coal boiler to run on biomass pellets demonstrates a commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility. This can improve the public image of the industry and attract environmentally conscious customers and investors.

    The Future of Industrial Boilers: A Sustainable Solution

    In conclusion, converting an industrial coal boiler to run on biomass pellets is a sustainable solution that can have a positive impact on the environment, reduce operating costs, and improve public perception. While the process is not without its challenges, with proper planning and execution, it can be a smooth transition towards a greener future.

    As more industries embrace cleaner fuel alternatives, we can hope to see a significant reduction in carbon emissions and a healthier planet for future generations. So, let’s continue the conversation and work towards converting more industrial coal boilers to run on renewable biomass pellets for a sustainable and greener future. 


Mark Edmonds

CEO of Berde-Kaway Agriventures Corporation

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