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Alternative Energy

Industrial Outlook

This issue of Industrial Outlook explores two alternative energy sources that may help businesses and industries realize financial and operational efficiencies.

Natural Gas: A Cleaner Energy Future

In January 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized the commonly known Major Source Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) rule. The rule requires affected users to meet both fuel and boiler dependent emission limitations and incorporate certain work practice standards into facility operations. One way facilities can comply with MACT is by using natural gas, an abundant, reliable, clean and cost-effective fuel source.

Natural gas is becoming more prevalent and cost competitive for industry, thanks to advanced collection processes and newly discovered supplies. Abandoning dirtier fossil fuels for cleaner natural gas certainly improves the environment, but it makes financial sense as well. Many facilities that have historically operated on coal because it was the only source are finding natural gas a more cost-effective alternative.

Electricity generation small chart: cost vs energy efficiencyImage: © 2014 America’s Natural Gas Alliance (click to enlarge)

Cost-benefit and energy analyses can help most large industrial sites see the benefits of natural gas: regulatory compliance (and avoidance of fines), lower fuel costs, improved air emissions, and the removal of complex and large fuel and storage systems. Large university campuses can realize many of the same benefits, and companies with large transportation fleets may consider converting their vehicles to a compressed natural gas-based system.

Switching from fuel oil or coal may require boiler changes, capital upgrades, and new operations and maintenance procedures. Building codes may also be affected, requiring new fire protection or ventilation systems. While the retrofit investment may be significant, natural gas equipment tends to be more efficient. And, without the need for ash handling equipment and other disposal functions, property can be returned for reuse. If there is no local gas connection, businesses may consider moving nearer a natural gas resource. Relocation may be more cost-effective in long run, reducing energy costs and preventing plant closure due to stringent emissions requirements.

Natural gas is a viable energy option for many industrial sectors, providing an overall advantageous life-cycle cost and better control of a business’ energy destiny. With many supplier and equipment options available, a careful analysis of energy needs will determine what makes the best sense.

Learn more at America's Natural Gas Alliance and the American Gas Association.

Biogas: The Renewable Energy Source

Wastewater and organic wastes are being viewed more as resources for water, energy, biosolids and nutrients. Using the same process as nature, anaerobic digestion can convert wastewater solids and organic wastes in valuable biogas. The manmade equivalent to natural gas, biogas, once properly treated, can do about everything its natural sibling can do, with two big advantages: it can be produced faster and is a renewable resource. And while municipalities are traditionally its biggest producers, biogas’ recent growth has been in the private sector, with many businesses now realizing its economic and operational benefits, from high-demand electric and thermal energy to fuel for fleet vehicles.

When considering the business case for biogas, decision makers should focus on the triple “plus” bottom line criteria—economic, social, environment and operations (the plus). While implementation must be financially feasible and make economic sense, other criteria can be used to determine the investment value, such as a hedge against future higher natural gas prices. Biogas can support environmental policies since it is a renewable resource (instead of a finite fossil fuel) and it improves air emissions. Socially, the switch can underscore an organization’s environmental stewardship and help the community tap unused waste streams. 

The often overlooked fourth criteria, operations considers how well a biogas facility can be reliably operated. Without a reliable and easy to maintain system, obtaining buy-in from the facility’s operators can be a challenge. Other factors to consider include the need to modify existing or add new equipment to use biogas, as well as any additional treatment. It is possible to clean and convert biogas to compressed natural gas making it a more valuable gasoline or diesel substitute. While this process to remove CO2 is typically expensive, the cost may start to fall with advancements in technology.

Once a decision has been made to use biogas, a business must decide on whether to buy or produce their own. Many industries are partnering with their local municipal digestion facilities, thereby reducing capital investment needs and maximizing existing municipal assets by supplying additional organic waste in return for biogas. Conversely, some companies, especially those in the food and beverage industry, may consider implementing their own anaerobic digestion systems, if they have the organic waste source and high demand for electric and thermal power. While onsite facilities are a significant capital investment, a business has process control and avoids or reduces the purchase of natural gas.

Biogas is an important component in the energy mix and, while it may not fit every opportunity, careful evaluation is critical to ensure its implementation would provide long-term value.

Learn more at American Biogas Council and European Biogas Association.