As September rolls along, train cars full of torrefied wood pellets were supposed to be rolling into the cogeneration plant on Cameron Avenue.
The pellets were supposed to go through testing that would confirm the University had a viable way to fulfill its pledge to become coal-free by 2020.
Energy Services put out a purchasing request during the summer for tests of pellets that companies were supposed to provide.
Nobody answered the bid.
Energy Services put out another bid later in the summer to meet the fall deadline. It also went unanswered.
Now, UNC is unsure of the next step in becoming coal-free.
“We’ve confirmed that there is no torrefied wood material out there,” said Ray DuBose, director of Energy Services.
The University was prepared to test torrefied pellets for a report on their emissions and efficiency, but will now have to restrict its findings to dried wood pellets, which have already been tested.
Torrefied pellets have less moisture than dried pellets, so they create similar amounts of energy as coal. They can also be transported in open train cars, making it easier for suppliers to get them to the University.
Wood pellets are an attractive alternative fuel because they can be co-fired with, and instead of, coal in UNC’s cogeneration plant.
To the University’s dismay, the market for torrefied pellets is virtually nonexistent nationwide.
Earth Care Products Inc. is a wood pellet manufacturer in Independence, Kan., that has been producing wood pellets for more than 20 years and torrefying them for about three.
Luke Livingston, the company’s assistant marketing manager, said there is demand for torrefied pellets but said unclear EPA regulations surrounding their production has hampered growth.
“We have a lot better luck globally than domestically,” he said, noting that torrefied pellets are more popular in Europe, where policies for alternative fuels are clearer.
Other schools have attempted to find torrefied pellets during their transitions to alternative fuels and have run into similar problems.
Troy Runge, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin who helped the school find biomass for its transition, said it was hard to find torrefied pellets for the university’s steam plant.
“The economics are interesting but not so compelling that companies are willing to invest in it,” he said.
The few companies that had considered supplying Wisconsin with torrefied pellets backed off when they found out how expensive it would be to get a facility up and running, Runge said.
He said torrefied pellet production might be too far ahead of its time to catch on in the U.S.
“It’ll come, but the market’s just not there yet,” he said.
Chris Hopkins, a research associate at N.C. State University who studies biomass, said he wasn’t surprised at the lackluster response to UNC’s wood pellet bids. He said it would be nearly impossible to find a torrefied pellet supplier who could ship pellets to the University practically.
“There’s not an operational torrefier in the Southeast,” he said.
Stewart Boss, co-chairman of the Sierra Student Coalition, an environmental group that lobbied UNC heavily to go coal-free, acknowledged the difficulty of finding torrefied pellet suppliers.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” he said, adding that a small market will make it hard for any large-scale operation to incorporate torrefied pellets.
He emphasized that UNC still has other options for ceasing coal usage by 2020, such as natural gas or solar energy.
“There’s a lot of stuff we could be doing,” he said. “The commitment is not to biomass. The commitment is to being coal-free.”
DuBose said Energy Services has to create its alternative energy strategy for the near future without torrefied pellets but will keep them in mind when the market improves.
“If torrefied wood becomes available in the future, we’re open to testing it,” he said.
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