Burning biomass may help Roanoke Cement reduce its overall carbon footprint

One of Botetourt’s biggest industries is taking a major step in being one of its biggest “green” industries.

Roanoke Cement Co. (RCC) is putting the necessary equipment in place so it can start trials to begin using “biomass” to help fire its cement kilns.

The investment, which Plant Manager Kevin Baird called substantial, is the latest effort by RCC to reduce its overall “carbon footprint.”

Baird said the company has set November as a target date to start trials to include biomass as a fuel for the kilns. Right now, the company is building the system to “dose” biomass material into the kiln system.

The company will do trials and tests some materials to see how it affects operations and product.

He expects all to go well.

The company has permits to use biomass as a fuel for its kilns, which burn at extremely high temperatures. The kilns now burn coal.

Biomass has a broad definition, but generally is plant material used as fuel.

Baird said RCC initially plans to use waste wood products to replace some of the coal it now uses. There may be opportunities to use other biomass fuels down the road—such as switchgrass that’s grown specifically as a biomass fuel.

By using waste wood products, the company would help reduce the amount of material that goes into landfills and the amount of methane that is emitted when wood products decompose.

Baird said one of the company goals is to reduce the amount of finite natural resources used to operate the plant.

“Cement making is energy intensive,” he said, “so you look at materials that are available to offset the use of fossil fuels.”

What they found is an abundance of biomass fuels that are available, particularly waste wood products. “Primarily, we want to focus on stuff being thrown away,” Baird said. “Materials that are being wasted.”

Baird said there’s a lot of excitement about RCC’s plans among those promoting the use of biomass fuels. That’s because there are so few biomass fuel users. He said there’s none in the Roanoke area, and if RCC’s efforts work out, the cement plant could become a big user.

Because the cement kilns burn at very high temperatures—almost twice the temperature of a power boiler and incinerators, there are no issues or concerns about environmental emissions.

The company may be burning wood, but there won’t be any wood smoke. “It’s tremendously much more efficient than burning wood in a stove,” he said.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate alternative and engineered fuels that the company can use. He said there’s not much difference in emissions from biomass than with coal.

But there is a huge difference when you take into account the benefits of drying and burning waste wood that otherwise would rot.

Baird did a presentation last fall that explains using biomass, or waste wood, as a fuel at the cement plant.

The presentation says using 100,000 tons of biomass as a fuel source would add 5,000 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, but if RCC can consume the 100,000 tons of wood that would otherwise be disposed of in a landfill, it would stop the equivalent of 500,000 tons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere through the release of methane gas.

The company also would reduce its coal consumption by 30 percent if it could use 100,000 tons of biomass.

It all seems so simple, but there are challenges in moving from using fossil fuels to using biomass—and some have to do with the regulations in place, others with technology.

A challenge with using wood for firing a very hot kiln is the wood needs to be dry.

Baird noted that anyone using a wood stove at home knows wet wood doesn’t burn well. The same applies to an industrial kiln.

“Moisture content is key,” Baird said. Reducing the moisture content in wood means drying it, and RCC can do that with the waste heat it produces in the cement-making process.

But reducing the moisture content in wood releases Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) from the wood.

“VOCs are released in nature from wood, but I can’t do it at my site,” Baird said.

He called naturally released VOCs “that fresh pine smell.”

Once the wood is brought to the RCC plant, it’s subject to regulation.

And Baird said regulations that are in place now are preventing the use of some green technologies. “We need a green regulatory highway to get some of the green technology in place.”

He compared the regulatory atmosphere in the United States to some countries in Europe he has visited where use of waste material is mandated by the government. He said the Europeans take a “holistic” approach to their environmental regulations. “They use landfills as a last measure.”

Baird said the company doesn’t anticipate any problems when it begins its trials. ”We don’t see a reason it won’t be able to work,” he added.

In fact, he sees the potential for the company creating a market for other biomass production. “You can’t have production of biomass if you don’t have a consumer of biomass,” he noted. RCC would be the only big biomass consumer within one or two hours of Roanoke.

Baird said company officials have been in the early stages of discussions with Va. Tech professors about growing biomass, such as switchgrass, for use at the cement plant. Switchgrass and other biomass fuels could become sustainable cash crops for farmers in the region at some point.

Catawba Farm just down Rt. 779 from the cement plant in Roanoke County is experimenting with growing 30 acres of switchgrass, Baird said.

When asked it he felt there was the potential for area farmers to turn switchgrass into a cash crop because of RCC, he responded, “Yes, I can see that developing.”

“It is something that is a potential, but first you have to have a market for it, and we’re showing up as a potential market for it,” he said.

Baird’s obviously excited about the prospects of using biomass as a fuel source, and the positive effects it could have on the overall environment.

“We (Titan America, which owns RCC) have our own internal industry and company goals to reduce our emissions across the board,” Baird said. “The development of alternative fuels such as biomass is part of that—to reduce the overall environmental impact on our community and the world. Anything you can do to reduce the use of finite natural resources is a good thing.

“Our company is very focused on these things, and for me, personally, it’s great to work for a company that has the same passion I do.”

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