The gasification of biomass to produce electricity can be used to promote the development of rural and off-grid areas or assist municipalities in their efforts to alleviate power shortages, creating sustainable jobs in the process, says biomass gasification company Carbo Consult & Engineering MD Gero Eckermann.
“We donated a demonstration biomass plant to the university of Fort Hare, in the Eastern Cape, that has been operating since 2007 to introduce students to renewable energy. Close to the university, one of our biomass gasification plants provides electricity to the Melani village, where they are using the electricity to bake bread daily. This is a demonstration of how off-grid electricity generation can provide social upliftment and [create jobs] using indigenous technology, which has a special niche in our country’s drive for renewable energy.”
A large variety of biomass feedstock can be used to generate tar-free gas that is fed into an engine-generator set (genset) to produce electricity. The company provides gasification plants that produce between 250 kW and 3 MW of gas each hour.
“Jobs are created not only in the processes of collecting and tailoring the biomass for gasification and operating the plants, but also through the availability of electricity for bakeries or other home industries. For example, the bakeries and workshops use electric tools instead of hand-powered tools, and fridges and other electrical equipment in homes and businesses can be introduced, which contributes to developing the region and to uplifting the communities,” says Eckermann.
The skills levels required to operate Carbo Consult’s tar-free biomass gasification plants are similar to those required to operate diesel gensets. The oper- ator must be able to inspect oil levels and radiator-water levels, replace or replenish when neces- sary and keep a logbook.
The plants must be serviced strictly in accordance with the operation and maintenance instructions to benefit from the life span of more than 20 years, and payback is within two to three years, or even 18 months in remote areas, he adds.
“The electricity enables industries to become established in regions without a connection to the electricity grid, reducing the need for businesses to migrate to urban areas to access electricity. This also helps to create new areas of development outside the current metropolitan areas.”
However, a key stumbling block for small-scale electricity generation is the lack of specifications for independent power producers producing less than 5 MW of electricity in State-owned power utility Eskom’s integrated resource plan.
“We were supposed to get clar- ity from the Department of Energy before [the international climate forum], the seventeenth Confer-ence of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in 2011, but the simplified request for pro- posals has not been issued.”
This lack of clarity with regard to small-scale electricity producers has hampered their abilities to deploy solutions that can provide electricity and commensurate development for rural or small-scale applications.
“There are significant opportunities to use of our system in forestry and farming areas of Africa where wood waste and agricultural waste, like sawdust, groundnut shells and sunflower husks, besides others, can be bricketted and used to produce electricity for the villages in those areas. This will help provide immediate electricity for these regions,” notes Eckermann.
Carbo Consult has sold biomass gasification plants to the Netherlands, the UK, Namibia, Japan (including an exclusive manufacturing licence to Japanese manufacturer Kawasaki Heavy Industries) and locally.
The company received the Frost & Sullivan UK award for renewable-energy innovation leadership in November 2010.
“Our plant can even use munici- pal waste, such as tree trimmings and other biomass sources, to produce electricity.
Industry body the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research tested and verified the tar-free system for Eskom in 2000, but, besides two Eskom plants, in Rosherville and Melani, the utility did not deploy additional gasification systems to areas that did not have electricity.
“Renewable-energy decision-makers have an opportunity to provide abundant electricity and development for many places in Southern Africa and beyond, but there does not seem to be a drive to provide off-grid electricity for citizens. This can easily be rectified through the use of tar-free biomass gasification and electricity generation,” concludes Eckermann.