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CU Burns 'Torrefied" Wood Instead of Pure Coal in Test

City Utilities Plant

City Utilities of Springfield invited local journalists out Thursday to witness an experiment in burning something other than coal to produce electricity. KSMU's Jennifer Moore took them up on the invitation and headed out.

Reporter: "Right now, I'm at the James River Power Station, just southeast of the city limits, near Lake Springfield. I'm surrounded by rather large hills of black coal, and looming over my shoulder are four enormous smokestacks. This coal is obviously burned to provide energy for the city. But the reason why we're here today has to do with a much smaller pile of what looks like dark sawdust. This is torrefied wood. And City Utilities is doing a test today to see whether this torrefied wood could be blended with coal to provide an alternative source of energy."

"We're gonna burn some of the torrefied wood we made in a plant in Missouri for a test," said Andrew Livingston, president of Earthcare Products Incorporated, based in Independence, Kansas. His company designs and engineers biomass energy systems, including producing torrefied wood. He arranged for this pile of wood to be here today.

Torrefication is a process of “roasting,” if you will, wood chips in a large furnace to remove the moisture and make the product more brittle. This process changes the wood chips, so that they are easier to crush for burning in generators like the ones here at CU.

"It will grind the torrefied wood as small as coal, with less horsepower, and burn in suspension burners in coal-fired boilers. It will blend, or it can be fired to 100 percent of the fuel rates. This is being tested for the first time in North America in a coal-fired boiler with this volume of torrefied wood," Livingston said.

Livingston said torrefied wood is "CO2 neutral," and that the environmental benefits to burning it as opposed to burning pure coal are plenty. As reporters look on, CU employees flip a switch and the pile of torrefied wood begins to disappear, due to a hole that is opened up under the pile. This allows the wood to fall onto an underground conveyor belt and make its way into the plant.

Steve Myers is the director of the James River Power Station.

"We've studied this a long time. One of the things we've looked at is, 'What's going to be compatible with the equipment that we already have in place, so that we don't have to go out and purchase, or spent a lot of extra dollars, to be able to do this,'" he said. Myers said CU feels like the torrefied wood would indeed be compatible with CU's current equipment.

City Utilities bought this pile of torrefied wood to perform today’s test.

"What you're looking at here is 50 tons of torrefied wood," Myers said. Surrounding the torrefied wood is 170,000 tons of coal. Today's test will blend 10 percent of torrefied wood with 90 percent coal.

After seeing the torrefied wood, our tour moves inside, and my feet become the joke of the press corps—next time I’ll remember not to wear high-heeled sandals to walk through fields of coal dust. My feet are solid black. We head in to the generators that are burning today’s blend of wood and coal.

Reporter standup: "Right now, the tour has come to Unit 3 of the power station, and this is where, right now as we speak, the torrefied wood is coming into a generator right next to me. And City Utilities staff are gauging the monitors to see whether this test is indeed working, and to see whether this torrefied wood will be an option for City Utilities in the future."

So far, the test appears to be working—no panic calls yet. The enormous generator known as “Unit 3a” is light green, and about the size of a tractor trailer. It’s almost 50 years old, but is maintained regularly, and is obviously still ticking.

We head back outside to the entrance of the power station. Our tour ends with CU spokesman Joel Alexander telling us how he believes the utility company is ahead of the curve in its quest to diversify its energy sources.

He said there are other types of biomass that could be used instead of wood, including possibly switchgrass, to provide electricity to CU customers.

City Utilities says it is monitoring the CO2 emissions, as well as the ash from today’s test, and that it will have the final results of the test sometime this fall.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

Smokestacks loom over the piles of coal at the James River Power Station southeast of the city limits. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore) A City Utilities employee inspects the 50 ton pile of Journalists listen as Steve Myers, director of the James River Power Station, explains what the test burn entails. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore) The pile of torrefied wood appears to disappear as an underground hole opens below the pile, before an unseen conveyor belt takes it up into the plant. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore) Generator CU staff members gauge the monitors in the control room to see whether the test is working. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore) The monitors in the control room at the James River Power Station indicate whether the test burn is working. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore)