91st General Meeting Speaker Presentation
"Alternate Boiler Fuels and Their Uses"
The following presentation was delivered at the 91st General Meeting Monday General Session on May 15, 2023. It has been edited for content and phrasing.
INTRODUCTION: Mr. Toth is the founder of Energy Conversion & Safety (ECS) Consulting, based in Nolensville, Tennessee. ECS provides consulting services for all aspects of the boiler and pressure vessel industry. Mr. Toth has several years of experience in the industry, including serving in the US Navy before becoming deputy boiler inspector for the state of Tennessee and, subsequently, chief boiler inspector. After leaving the position in 2008, Mr. Toth joined the Boiler Supply Company as director of service operations before creating ECS.
His slide presentation can be found here.
MR. TOTH: Good afternoon, everyone. It's really good to be here. I see a lot of faces that I’ve not seen in quite a few years. It's probably been over a decade at least. I saw that there were some individuals that we've lost since the last time I've been around. And that kind of hurt my heart just because they were good people.
Bob Schueler is one of them. I know that anybody who went through Schueler's classes probably weren't thinking too highly of him at that particular time, but he's a great person.
Again, when we started talking about this meeting, I was speaking with Joel Amato (NBBI executive director). And Joel said, "Well, what are you going to talk about?" And I said, "What do you want me to talk about?" And he said, "Well, let me think about it." Well, when he did, that was mistake No. 1, because I could have gone with something easy like, I don't know, control safety devices, whatever. And he came back and said, "What about alternative fuels?"
I was like, O.K., alternative fuels. I could probably kick around that for five, 10 minutes. And then he said, "Well, I think it would be a good one." I said, "O.K. We'll do it." Some of you out there right now have known me a long time probably thought: What does Marty know about alternative fuels? Really, the question is what do I know and what don't I know? There's a lot out there, isn't there? The illustration on the board right now is kind of my head whenever I thought about this presentation, because when we looked at it, it was what am I going to do in 30 minutes to talk about alternative fuels? There’s so much out there, so much when we look at alternative fuels, that we can literally take this whole session this afternoon to talk about them and we'd still have a lot more to talk about.
So, what we want to make sure we're doing is we're keeping an open mind and understanding that this presentation is really going to take us down the road of opening our eyes to look deeper into what is coming down the line. I think we’ve heard a lot about the alternative fuels. The big one now is what? Hydrogen. We've all heard that at least in the past year or two, especially those of us who are in the room today maybe that do a lot of business or work from Europe. There's a lot of talk about that. And so, we're going to have to take this challenge head on not only in the manufacturing department but also in the inspection department, and we're going to have to educate ourselves.
We're going to jump right into it and understand alternative fuels and a little bit about what we have to work with. So, when we talk about fuels in general, we all understand our big three, which are our coal, our fuel oil and, of course, our natural gas. We all know what coal is, but we also may not understand the different levels of coal. We know that coal is generated through time, pressure, and temperature. Heat is going to develop coal over millions of years. But understanding that there are levels where it's going to come from, such as the coals that are used for energy generation or electricity generation is going to be the coals that have the highest pollutants in them, such as lignite and sub-bituminous. But then you start getting into some of those deeper, such as bituminous and anthracite. Anthracite is going to be something that you had up in the north.
So up in the north, if you use coal for heating or cooking, you're going to use anthracite. You don't want a bunch of smoke and a bunch of pollutants in the environment, but the coals we do use for energy generation are going to emit a lot of pollutants. Still to this day over one-third of local electric generation comes from combustion fuel. That is coal. That is still quite a bit. When you're thinking about that over 40% still comes from coal worldwide, where do we look at that? It's not the United States. Even though, would it shock you to know that the United States is still No. 2 or 3, depending on where you look, in the use of coal consumption in the world? Anybody want to guess who No. 1 is?
MR. TOTH: By a lot. We're talking 50%. That's a bunch. So, when we start thinking about these alternative fuels, it's got to be worldwide – a worldwide network. We really do need to look at that. When we're looking at 36 quadrillion BTUs being utilized, anybody know how many zeros are in quadrillion? 15. That's a bunch. Also, the United States still has the largest surplus of reserves of coal, so everybody says why don't we just use that? We hear that a lot in the news. Why don't we just use that? Well, it's hard to in a lot of cases.
Don't get me wrong. If you know me, like a lot of you do, I'm not one of those tree hugger types. That's not what I'm up here about, but there is some awareness that we need to put into it. When we look at the other fuel, fuel oil, again, fuel oil, we know that's coming from the processing of crude oil. We've seen a big reduction in its uses. Do you all agree with that? Much of that comes from a lot of the regulatory requirements that are coming down from the government, but it also takes a lot of money to maintain those boilers that are running off fuel oil.
And I like to say thank goodness for coal. Natural gas, this is our guy right now, and there's good reason for it. With the volume that we have, supply is there. It's very cheap. We're looking at nearly one-fourth of the global energy – electricity – is being generated. A big part of that is coming through the United States. When we look at these numbers, nearly 80% of the industrial boiler units and 85% of commercial run off natural gas. Fifty percent of the capacity of industrial and 87% of commercial also run off natural gas. And there's good reason. It’s a lot more favorable or has been over the past few decades because it has fewer emissions – 30% less CO2 than oil and 45% less than coal. That's huge.
The problem that we run into is that it’s not a renewable resource. It can run out. We all agree with that. It can run out. And so, we have to look at the alternative fuel opportunities that are out there. That’s what the industry is doing. Biogas, biomass, wood, using trash, such as municipal solid waste, landfill gases, and digester gasses as ways of producing methane are huge market possibilities out there, but we do run into some problems with that.
At the source, we see that a lot of us boiler people are out there doing the inspections. We see that a lot at the source. Maybe I’m at a water treatment plant, and they're producing their own biogas and they're using it there – good old clean digester gas, right? Not so much, but there are opportunities out there. And we look at that when we realize in the United States alone primary energy consumption, only 12% of that is renewable. And I think there are opportunities, especially when we look – of that 12%, 40% of that is made from biomass or woods. These are renewables, are they not? Trees grow. We do our business every day. So, we need to look at some of these other resources.
When we look at some of those alternative fuels, we understand that really it's the renewability, environmental, and also the cost that's associated with it. And when we look at the renewability, obviously, we have those that are well known, right? Your solar, your wind, your hydro, even tide. That's something that's not new. It's out there.
But the biomass energy is something that I think is extremely viable and possible if we take it to another level. We have to take that to another level when we look at the environmental, sustainability – being able to sustain, controlling spillages and controlling leaks. I think we all know that when we start talking about the things being emitted into the atmosphere, such as CO2, recognizing that methane is extremely more harmful to our environment than CO2. Is that shocking to anyone? Most people don't recognize that.
So what happens when we start sending natural gas out, producing it, processing it, and transporting it? Leaks. Where do you think that's going to? We want to also look at the ability to reduce those greenhouse gasses, reduce that carbon dioxide and that methane that is being emitted into the atmosphere.
The last one is we look at the economics of it. The economics play a big part, and it's not always a positive one because the cost it takes to make some of these alternative fuels is a big hit in the pocketbook. It's kind of like that image of the guy with the suit and the head exploding. That's what's happening when we're trying to figure out what’s best for our environment. We want to make sure that we’re utilizing these waste boilers and utilizing these fuels that are sustainable and renewable, allowing for these farms to be able to use them on their premises. The biggest thing we hear about the cows is everybody wants to get rid of the cows, right? Well, the reality is it's the big cow farms that are the issue – the ones that have a huge population of cattle. The industry is looking to overhaul that to where we're able to collect, be able to process that biomass, and not allow for the methane to be going into the environment. Biomethane is probably the way that I looked at this when doing this research. It’s really the way that we need to go. Why is it such an advantage?
MEMBERS: It's available.
MR. TOTH: Yes, it's available. However, it’s pretty much right in line with what we have now, which is natural gas. It is renewable. We have to process it; it's not just a biogas. The difference between a biogas and biomethane is a process procedure where we're getting rid of the CO2 and some others and getting a higher percentage per volume of methane, so then we can take that and directly inject it into our preexisting lines. That’s a huge advantage. When we're talking about the anaerobic digestion process, we know anaerobic. I know this from working out; you have aerobic and anaerobic. Anaerobic digestion is without air, so we're processing the biomass. It does create methane and carbon dioxide, but all we have to do is take that gas, process it so that we're removing the products that we don't want so we're getting pure methane or close to pure, up to 95%, and then we can take that and inject that into our natural gas lines directly.
The big one that hits the media these days, especially in Europe, is hydrogen. ABMA, or the American Boiler Manufacturers Association, put out where one of their members is actually producing the burners now that are going to be hydrogen-ready. Anybody heard about what's going on over in the UK with boilers? They're putting out a stipulation that they are going to full hydrogen – 100% – and getting rid of natural gas. In their energy production, they have dropped the use of coal pretty much off the table. They don't even use it anymore. Natural gas is going the same way. What they're saying is, residentially, they're going to have to have boilers that can burn initially on a natural gas hydrogen blend and then be able to convert completely over to 100% hydrogen burning. We said hydrogen is the most abundant in the universe, and that's correct, but how do we create it? How do we process it? It's not something new; it's been around for a long time. Right now, what do we have? We have black and brown hydrogen – the gasifying of the coal. The most producing process is grey hydrogen where they're utilizing steam to separate the hydrogen from the fossil fuel.
What are they doing with the CO2? They're sending it to the atmosphere. We're creating that hydrogen that, yes, at the point of use is going to not be emitting living greenhouse gasses other than water vapor. But during the course of producing it, we are actually creating a lot more CO2 or even pink hydrogen, which I think is the way to go. We can go on for hours talking about the use of nuclear energy as the source for the electrolysis that we are seeing when we look at green hydrogen, because blue hydrogen is no different than grey hydrogen, except they're wanting to capture that CO2 and bury it somewhere – very expensive.
Green hydrogen sounds great. I love it. Perfect but very, very expensive. And there’s not a whole lot of production of that right now. Grey is what we have going on. And that's where we are sending a lot of that CO2 to the atmosphere. Again, we understand it's the most abundant. It's also the lightest element in the universe. So, what does that mean when it comes to transporting? What do we have the potential of? More what? More leaks, right? Hydrogen will work its way into any little thing. Ever heard of hydrogen embrittlement? Hello, what do you think is going to happen? We're going to have to keep that into account whenever we're manufacturing these boilers.
Again, I'm not up here to tell you one way or the other. I'm not telling you pro this or anti that. I'm just reading the facts. There’s a lot of challenges in this – extremely flammable. Do we use or do we burn hydrogen on a daily basis for the last few decades? Absolutely. We have in environments where we have individuals who are trained, certified, and experienced to utilize them. Do I get a head shake? Yeah, that's right. So now we're going to turn around, and we're going to take this fuel and put it in the hands of John Q. Public from the great state of Maine. Here you go. How are we going to store it?
The biggest downfall that we have or the biggest obstacle we have with hydrogen is understanding that it has one-third the heating value of natural gas per volume. What does that mean, Marty? Well, let's understand the difference between volume and mass because in the case of by mass, hydrogen has three times the heating valuable. And you just contradicted yourself. You aren’t making sense. Because how do we transfer or transport natural gas? By volume. How do we sell it? By volume.
So, we have the challenges of, holy smokes, what are we going to do with trying to get this product that is lighter, that is smaller in size? We're going to have to do things like compress it. We're going to put compressors in there. We're going to change the temperature. We're going to liquify it. We're going to have to do something; that's going to cost money. Upside/downsides of alternative fuels: Uncertainty, cost, transmission, entering the market, market entry, and the problem with GHGs being emitted to the atmosphere. Hydrogen mist that we have, still extremely expensive, still emits GHGs however it's processed. Storage and transmission are problems.
Right now, we can’t sustain the demand by what we can produce. We have to lower that cost, increase the demand, and we have to get away from the processes that create greenhouse gasses. When we look at that blend, we understand if we’re even shooting for 80/20 – 80% natural gas and 20% hydrogen – we're still not getting 100% relative energy for pure methane. So that has to be taken in consideration, too, because they aren’t going to reduce the cost, I promise you, so we have to figure that out.
We're talking about the blue skies – renewables. I don't want to leave us with all negatives. I want to say that hydrogen is renewable and exhaust, water vapor versus CO2 can have potential of zero GHGs. The ability for us to reduce the need for fossil fuels dependency, especially from people that may not be our friends. Biomethane renewable natural gas is pretty much what we call it. We can easily blend it with the natural gas system that we have in place, potentially reducing those methane and CO2 emissions and still reducing that fossil fuel dependency. And in the process of creating it, we also have the ability to create natural fertilizers, instead of utilizing fossil fuels to create fertilizer, so that's a win/win.
So, what’s that current state? Obviously, I mentioned it in the beginning. You have companies like Cleaver Brooks that are looking at utilizing these renewable energies and creating the boilers that can handle the materials or burn suppliers, such as a power plant that was able to get a UL listing for their hydrogen blend burner. Understanding that those government regulations are going to come down, they are going to come over the pond and they are going to hit us in certain areas. But those manufacturers of innovations are something that we are seeing in the industry and also the thoughts that are being made for the infrastructure changes that we have and also the abilities for us to reduce the cost of all these problems.
Thank you so much for your time.