April 15th, 2015 – A Georgia-based company is testing hemp as an alternative feedstock to timber-based wood chips for conversion into bio-coal. Vega Biofuels Inc. specializes in converting organic materials such as woodchips into bio-fuels for energy production and biochar for the hemp and medical marijuana growing industries.
To date, most coal-fired plants converted to utilize alternative fuels are using biomass from forested timber. The process of creating bio-coal from waste timber is called torrefaction. Torrefaction removes moisture from the biomass and reduces or eliminates undesireable toxins such as nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxides. The process creates an energy dense material that is more economical to transport than other fuels. As a result, bio-coal is considered a renewable energy fuel that meets the renewable portfolio standards and renewable energy credits (RECs) in the United States.
At least 20 utilities in North America are now using wood chips to replace 5-25 percent of the needed coal or natural gas. Biomass plays a key role today with 7,000 megawatts of installed capacity, says the U.S. Department of Energy. It also says that the co-firing of biomass and fossil fuels is the most immediate step that utilities can take to cut their carbon dioxide emissions.
Using hemp biomass waste products as an alternative to timber biomass makes good sense. A major benefit hemp has over timber feedstock is that hemp can be harvested annually, whereas timber feedstock takes many years to grow. And as more states allow the re-introduction of hemp-based agricultural industry, hemp biomass could over time become a superior biomass feedstock for energy production. However, as the market for hemp grows, will hemp as a bio-coal feedstock be financially feasible? To date, the economics are unclear.
One thing that is certain though is that more comprehensive approaches need to be taken in managing our forests, rivers and other natural resources and their role in mitigating and responding to the impacts of climate change such as drought and violent weather events. When it comes to climate change, the positive impact of hemp agriculture and derivative products will could become an important tool to add to the mix.