“All of the wood we use comes from sustainably managed forests,” said Joe O’Carroll, the Managing Director of Imperative Energy, describing steps his company has taken to guarantee biomass is a renewable energy. “If you’re going to build,” he said, “it would seem foolish not to try and future-proof that.”
Sustainability is a cornerstone of Imperative Energy's approach. “We don’t want the same thing that happened in the liquid biomass market to happen in the solid biomass market, ” O’Carroll said. “We’ve taken it upon ourselves to impose this obligation.” And, he said, “There are rules.”
The United Nations Clean Development Mechanism (UN CDM) must certify that the project is “carbon-neutral” from the source to the generation if it is to provide the carbon credits that help a company meet its European Union emissions reduction obligation. The rules guarantee, O’Carroll believes, that wood biomass cannot be a future source of electricity and heat generation unless no more is being harvested than is being grown. This is what he means by “future-proofing.”
The company’s name came from something then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton, now the U.S. Secretary of State, said during the 2005 energy bill debate. “She made the point,” O’Carroll said, that “renewable energy is not alternative energy, it is ‘imperative energy.’ And that’s where we got the name.”
Imperative Energy was conceived in 2005 but began doing substantive business in 2007, when O’Carroll worked in forestry management. “Essentially what we do is convert biomass to energy, a pretty traditional tried and tested technology.” The company’s technology allows for using biomass to make hot water or steam to generate electricity and also recaptures the heat byproduct for reuse. O’Carroll saw the forestry industry using waste wood and realized it could be done in other industries.
The original shareholders in the company were O’Carroll and Green Belt Ltd., a private forestry management firm. The original intent was to use forest thinnings to obtain benefit from “a low-value commodity that nobody wanted” and prevent its wasteful decay into methane, a climate-change-aggravating greenhouse gas.
The company now has 17 installations in the U.K. and Ireland and is presently doing due diligence on acquisitions in Washington state and Canada. “When you look at the U.S.,” O’Carroll said, “there’s an unbelievable biomass resource there.” The most attractive resources, he said, are in “the Southeast, the New England states, and the Northwest.”
In the Southeast, he said, “we believe that we would have no problem contracting about three million tonnes of biomass per annum. In just the three states Imperative Energy has studied, he said, “we believe we can contract ten times more biomass than we have contracted here in Ireland. We have enough biomass here to target 200 megawatts, so ten times that would be 2,000 megawatts.” That’s the equivalent of two huge nuclear power plants, within the company’s stringent sustainability imperatives that promise ongoing production.
The recent sharp drop in natural gas prices has slowed the company’s growth “only slightly” because it is very selective in targeting large institutional customers that lack access to natural gas lines.
“Whether the client is a hospital or a school or a distillery or a food processor, they move from a situation where they have an oil-based boiler having no idea what the future price of that is going to be,” O’Carroll said. “We give them carbon neutral energy but no carbon penalties, remove their exposure to fossil fuels, and now there’s somebody that does all the service.”
O’Carroll said a wider value of forest biomass to energy has also been studied. “A similar issue that people raise is that we know the biomass is carbon neutral -- but what about the supply chain, the harvesting and the transporting?” The U.K. government authority charged with overseeing the nation’s emissions reduction effort has studied the life cycle question, O’Carroll said. “They say it has a lower life-cycle carbon footprint than using gas.”
O’Carroll insisted that rather than doing harm to the forests, Imperative Energy is protecting them. “Where you get a lot of dead wood, that accelerates the danger of fires,” O’Carroll said. “We move in and harvest the thinnings. We’re not doing clear-cutting, we’re diminishing the forest fire risk.” By creating value for the thinnings and waste, they are driving sustainable forest management.
“Sustainably managed biomass is a finite resource,” O’Carroll said, “so our company believes that we must ensure that it is used as efficiently as possible.” Imperative Energy wants to see biomass used only and always to generate electricity where the byproduct heat can also be captured for use district heating, resulting in 85 percent efficiency.
“The last thing we should be doing with a scarce biomass resource,” O’Carroll said, “is using it in power stations that typically operate at 30 percent efficiency, where 70 percent of the value goes up the cooling tower.”
O’Carroll is often called on to explain that he is not “cutting down forests,” he said. “Clearly, what’s important is that we use these resources on a sustainable basis. Everything is a carbon cycle, even the fossil fuels,” he said. But those carbon reserves, he explained, took tens of thousands of years to be stored and have been released in a hundred-year period, resulting in worsening CO2 concentrations. That’s why all Imperative Energy’s contracts pass on its commitment to sustainability. “They would be acquiring us knowing that is one of the keystones.”