Nebraska’s known for its golden corn, cattle and wide-open spaces.
But take a drive across the state and you’ll also see fields of spent cornstalks in the fall, piles of cow manure and Eastern red cedar creeping into grassland.
Enginuity Worldwide, a company out of Mexico, Missouri, wants to turn that agricultural waste into a product it’s calling biocoal, which it says looks and burns just like regular coal and could help reduce the carbon footprint of coal-fired electricity.
The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality last month announced it awarded Enginuity Worldwide a $250,525 grant to explore the feasibility of producing the biomass fuel from the state’s agricultural waste.
One of the difficulties inherent in reducing the carbon emissions of Nebraska’s electricity is that the state’s utilities already are massively invested in existing generation infrastructure, the vast majority of which is fueled by coal.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports 61.5 percent of the state’s power was coal generated last year.
Instead of scrapping existing power plants to reduce carbon, utilities can replace a percent of the coal they burn with carbon neutral biocoal, said Enginuity Worldwide President Nancy Heimann during a recent interview.
The company says that if every U.S. coal-burning plant mixed 10 percent of biocoal into its fuel supply it would reduce the industry’s emissions by 11 percent.
“We’re not suggesting a replacement of all coal because coal is a very effective way to make power. What we’re suggesting is this is just a tool in the tool box that mitigates carbon,” she said.
“Anyone that currently uses coal that is looking to diversify their fuel portfolio, we can be beneficial in that regard.”
Produced compressing and heating agricultural waste through friction, biocoal has the same energy output as coal, the company says. The process for creating it is similar to how nature makes coal using compression, but Enginuity does it in two minutes and 40 seconds.
The emissions released from burning the biomass fuel would have been released anyway if the waste it is made from, corn stover for example, had been allowed to decompose in a field. So when looking at the entire life cycle of the product, Heimann said, it’s carbon neutral.
Heimann said biocoal likely would not compete with traditional coal in terms of price, but that’s not how it will be marketed. Instead it will be marketed as a renewable fuel and a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. She compared it to adding ethanol to gasoline.
“If there is a desire to diversify the fuel sources to include some that are carbon beneficial, we believe we have the most cost effective fuel to do that,” she said.
Lincoln Electric System looked at the benefits of woody biomass products in 2012, but found it to be one of the least efficient and cost effective technologies it considered at that time, spokeswoman Kelley Porter said.
Enginuity says its product is more efficient and has higher energy output than traditional wood biomass.
Porter said the Lincoln utility would be interested evaluating biocoal at some point in the future to see whether Enginuity’s patented rotary compression process will make a better product.
Whether there will be demand for biocoal will be primarily driven by federal legislation to reduce carbon emissions.
President Barack Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan -- which calls for reducing carbon dioxide emissions nationwide by 32 percent -- currently is tied up in litigation pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plan sets individual goals for each state and calls for Nebraska to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030, using 2012 levels as a starting point.
Enginuity Worldwide already has an ongoing partnership in place with power company Ameren Missouri to develop a biomass fuel for that company to use. Heimann said the project is still working through governmental regulations and timelines are dependent on the outcome of the lawsuit surrounding the Clean Power Plan.