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EU research project to convert a coal-fired plant to advanced biomass launched

In the Netherlands, the European ARBAHEAT consortium has started a four-year EU co-funded research project to investigate the conversion of an Ultra-SuperCritical coal-fired power plant in Rotterdam into a biomass-fired heat and power plant. The innovative technology used to produce the required steam treated biomass has been developed by the Norwegian company Arbaflame AS.

Commissioned in 2015, ENGIE Energie Nederland Maasvlakte Power Station 1 in the Port of Rotterdam is a state-of-the-art coal-fired power plant. The 800 MW capacity facility was built to be able to co-fire up to 50 percent biomass with coal. Now as part of the EU Horizon 2020 project ARBAHEAT, the plan is to demonstrate the integration of a biomass steam treatment technology and convert it into a biomass combined heat and power (CHP) plant (photo courtesy ENGIE).

Called “Cost-effective transformation of a Highly-Efficient, Advanced, Thermal Ultra-SuperCritical coal-fired power plant into a CHP by retrofitting and integrating an ARBAFLAME biomass upgrading process (ARBAHEAT)“, the project aims to integrate an innovative biomass pre-treatment installation into the 800 MW coal-fired Maasvlakte Power Station 1 owned by project partner ENGIE Energie Nederland.

In addition to ENGIE (NL) and Arbaflame (NO), the ARBAHEAT consortium includes PNO Consultants (NL), TNO (NL), Sintef (NO), Free University of Brussels (VUB, BE), Port of Rotterdam (NL) and University of Bergen (NO). The four-year demonstration project has received EUR 19 million in co-funding under the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Advanced biomass with coal-like characteristics

The installation will produce so-called steam treated biomass pellets from sustainable biomass using a process technology developed by Norway-based Arbaflame and which complies with the most stringent EU sustainability criteria.

These advanced biomass pellets were specifically chosen as an energy source as they have comparable characteristics to coal. Compared to conventional “white” wood pellets they are more water resistant, have a higher energy density and have almost the same burning characteristics to coal. This will facilitate the use in an existing coal-fired plant and is expected to “significantly” reduce the costs for converting the existing coal-fired facility to biomass.

Although parts of the steam treatment technology and resulting biomass pellets have been tested before by Arbaflame on 15 other power plants, demonstrating the cost-effective integration of the technology into an existing modern power plant has never before been done to this extent.

“A successful demonstration of this concept will establish an impressive showcase for other EU coal-fired power plants or even to other bioenergy plants,” said Håkon Knappskog, CEO, Arbaflame, here seen taking questions about the company’s technology during the 2018 Argus Biomass conference.

A promising retrofit cost-effective solution

The European ambitions to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have a significant impact on the operation of coal-fired power plants and on the grid balancing needed to support the growing amount of intermittent renewable power being provided by wind and solar photovoltaic (PV).

Retrofitting some modern existing coal-fired power plants with the ARBAHEAT concept could offer a significant contribution to the realisation of decarbonisation targets in Europe by adding sustainable heat and power flexibility.

According to project partners, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), the project is of “great importance” to the Netherlands, given the planned closure of the five coal-fired power stations by 2030 and the termination of the subsidy for the co-firing of biomass in coal-fired power stations by 2024.

Due to its size and strategic location in the Port of Rotterdam, the state-of-the-art ENGIE Energie Nederland Maasvlakte Power Station 1 is seen as the “perfect candidate” for this first demonstration project. Originally commissioned in 2015, the 800 MW capacity power plant was built to be able to co-fire up to 50 percent biomass with coal.

The plant can play an important role in the harbour of Rotterdam not only supplementary to wind and solar but also in providing heat. However, at this moment there is no viable business case to convert a coal-fired power plant into a 100 percent sustainable and flexible biomass plant. A successful demonstration will allow for delivering large amounts of sustainable electricity and heat to the surrounding area, said Jeroen Schaafsma, manager Coal ENGIE

The full switchover to 100 percent biomass and the transition from electricity generation only to combined electricity and heat production are seen as promising options. Yet apart from energy, the project will also produce other biobased side-products from the steam treatment process, such as biochemicals, allowing for an even more sustainable and cost-effective conversion of the power plant.

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