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In the aftermath of the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico, bold action is bringing relief to the Islanders in the form of distributed power generation.

Where sugarcane or rice bagasse, pulp and paper industry residue, and urban solid waste take up valuable space or are being burned anyway, the use of biomass for electricity generation is a viable alternative to fossil fuels and other less reliable green energy sources (wind and solar).

“We’ve all heard the reports that it will be many months before electricity is restored to Puerto Rico,” said Arensis CEO, Julien Uhlig. “Though the government is currently rewiring the central electrical grid and working hard to have 90% of the island powered by December of this year, we are glad to support the desperately needed relief now and feel continued building of smart and efficient microgrids is an important alternative to having only one source of energy on the island.”

While restoration of the central grid will take time, distributed energy systems can provide relief in localized areas more quickly. Arensis is installing an initial biomass conversion system to power the Sports Complex in the City of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. The Sports Complex is currently serving as a refugee shelter and distribution center.

Biomass energy plant

In addition to the energy conversion system, Arensis is also sending a debris processor along with plans of relocating staff to run the system. This system converts hurricane debris and woody biomass to electricity and thermal energy.

Arensis is an international provider of distributed energy systems, headquartered at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI). According to Arensis literature, their energy systems use the most advanced German biomass and waste-to-energy technology in the market. Each power system generates 50 kilowatts (kW) of electricity and 120 kW of thermal energy and fits in a 20-foot shipping container. The containers can quickly be deployed and can be stacked to supply up to 50 megawatts (MW) of entirely off-grid energy.

Arensis plans to supply 30 additional units to deliver a total of 1.5 MW of electricity and 3.6 MW of thermal energy. Arensis is one of a growing coalition of companies reaching out to help in Puerto Rico. Lufthansa Technik is transporting the units, and Schneider Electric is providing contractors and integration equipment. The long-range intent of this international coalition is to spark a micro-grid energy revolution in Puerto Rico. This revolution could not only deliver immediate relief to the citizens of Puerto Rico but also create jobs for the longer term.

Biomass Technology

As a method of power generation, biomass is one of the more controversial energy alternatives. Positive attributes include the following:

  • It’s a renewable energy source;
  • It’s carbon neutral;
  • It’s theoretically widely available;
  • It can produce a diversity of fuel products (methane, biofuels);
  • It can drive steam turbines to generate electricity and heat; and
  • It can eliminate or reduce waste that would go to landfills.

Critics of the method emphasize that:

  • It’s not clean, producing air pollution that can be toxic;
  • It can lead to deforestation;
  • It produces inefficient fuel;
  • The technology is expensive;
  • And the biggest concern—the use of land to grow fuel crops takes up land that could be used to produce food in a world where the ever-increasing population needs food.

Use of biomass as a fuel source makes the most sense in areas where heavy biomass residues are readily available. Where sugarcane or rice bagasse, pulp and paper industry residue, and urban solid waste take up valuable space or are being burned anyway, the use of biomass for electricity generation is a viable alternative to fossil fuels and other less reliable green energy sources (wind and solar).

And particularly in emergency situations such as Puerto Rico is experiencing, an Arensis biomass conversion system that transforms devastation into lifesaving power can only be seen as a good thing.