A U.S. biofuel company called Primus Green Energy has come up with a biofuel processing system that offers the gasoline version of the distributed energy trend. Rather than pushing for the construction of large, centrally located biofuel plants, the company is focusing on a relatively modest scale, in which its facilities would draw feedstock from a local radius of only about 50 miles. While that model places some limits on the kinds of areas where a biofuel facility could be built, it does offer new opportunities for sustainable growth in established communities, including agricultural regions and areas where wood-based industries are located.
Triple Pundit had the pleasure of speaking recently with George Boyajian, Primus Green’s VP of Business Development, and he had some insights to offer about this interplay of existing industries with new “home grown” renewable energy opportunities.
Old tech meets new tech
Boyajian notes several different points where the new intersects with the tried and true. That starts with the feedstock, which Primus Green’s system uses in the familiar form of premium wood pellets – the same fuel that you can use at home in a wood burning stove. In addition to boosting the efficiency of the process due the uniform size and shape of the biomass, the pellet-based system enables Primus Green to prep its raw feedstock with existing technology, using commercially available pelletizing machines.
Old energy dogs learn new tricks
Another meeting point is within the biomass conversion technology itself. Primus Green’s system is based on a gassification process that has been used with fossil fuels for many years, enabling the company to leverage of the experience of engineers with long careers in the energy industry. One result was that the company was able to build its plant in Hillsborough, New Jersey with a relatively large gassifier, since the basic technology was already a known. A couple of proprietary tweaks enable the system to eliminate extra steps (and extra machinery), which contributes to the overall cost savings. The system can also switch back and forth between gassifed biomass and natural gas, which enables it to smooth out any bumps in the supply chain. That’s an important advantage in this transitional period between fossil and renewable fuels, since it enables the facility to avoid money-losing shut-down and startup periods if sufficient biomass is temporarily unavailable.
New green jobs for traditional skills
Though Primus Green’s system involves some innovative technological tweaks, the construction of its facilities relies heavily on traditional skilled labor including welders, steelworkers and mechanics. As Boyajian suggests, this kind of skilled labor pool would be available locally in many areas that fit the 50-mile business model; namely, areas in which a fair degree of industrial or agricultural activity already exists. In addition, there is the potential to draw from local labor for permanent jobs that require conventional skills involved in harvesting and transporting biomass.
A boost for local industries
That brings us to one of the more interesting elements that Boyajian brings up. In keeping with the company’s motto that “you have to build the plants where the biomass is,” an ideal location for a Primus Green facility would be in proximity to an existing wood-based industry, such as a paper mill or particle board manufacturer. Primus Green would have the advantage of a handy source of feedstock, and it would provide these industries with an opportunity to reduce waste disposal costs and realize value from scrap. Since the gassification process generates a large amount of heat, there is also the potential to reclaim thermal energy for other uses.
Primus Green has also tested a number of feedstocks and has identified the grass miscanthus as a good alternative to wood. Since miscanthus can thrive on marginal lands, it would provide farm communities with an opportunity to put more acreage into production without reducing the amount of land for food crops.
Consumers can stick with the tried and true
Perhaps the most important nexus of the new process is the product itself. The system yields a 93 octane gasoline that is virtually indistinguishable from its petroleum counterpart. It can be used as a drop-in substitute without the need for modifying vehicles or transportation, storage and fueling equipment. For consumers who aren’t in the market for an electric vehicle, renewable gasoline offers a way to embrace a new fuel while sticking with the same car.
Next steps for Primus Green Energy
While Primus Green Energy is a good example of how old and new industries can complement each other, it also illustrates how the pace of transition to renewable energy is quickening. At the beginning of our conversation, Boyajian joked that the first gallon of gasoline to come out of the new process cost $24 million, involving years of research and development. With a test facility under its belt, the company can now produce renewable gasoline at about $60 per barrel, a price competitive with petroleum. An automated demonstration plant is currently under construction and next in line is a commercial scale facility.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.