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Biomass Energy: The Other Renewable Energy

Besides wind, solar, and hydro energy; there are a few other forms of renewable energy. One of them is called biomass energy. Let’s explore how biomass energy can help reduce our carbon footprint.

What is Biomass?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), biomass is “organic material that comes from plants and animals, and it is a renewable source of energy”1.

Biomass contains stored energy from the sun. Plants absorb the sun’s energy in a process called photosynthesis. When biomass is burned, the chemical energy in biomass is released as heat. Biomass can be burned directly or converted to liquid biofuels or biogas that can be burned as fuels.1

Examples of biomass and their uses for energy1:

  • Wood and wood processing wastes—burned to heat buildings, to produce process heat in industry, and to generate electricity
  • Agricultural crops and waste materials—burned as a fuel or converted to liquid biofuels
  • Food, yard, and wood waste in garbage—burned to generate electricity in power plants or converted to biogas in landfills
  • Animal manure and human sewage—converted to biogas, which can be burned as a fuel

How Can Biomass be Utilized?

Biomass can be used in a number of ways. According to the EIA, solid biomass, such as wood and garbage, can be burned directly to produce heat. Biomass can also be converted into a gas called biogas or into liquid biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. These fuels can then be burned for energy.1

Biogas forms when paper, food scraps, and yard waste decompose in landfills, and it can be produced by processing sewage and animal manure in special vessels called digesters.1

Ethanol is made from crops such as corn and sugar cane that are fermented to produce fuel ethanol for use in vehicles. Biodiesel is produced from vegetable oils and animal fats and can be used in vehicles and as heating oil.1

Why is Biomass Energy Important?

Scientists disagree over how environmentally friendly biomass energy is, but they do agree that its supplies come from sustainably managed sources. Many consumers and companies alike are seeking green alternatives to traditional energy production methods.2 According to a 2016 report from World Energy Resources, Biomass is an incredibly versatile substance, able to produce energy through being burned directly, converted into liquid biofuels or harvested as a gas from landfills or anaerobic digesters. Its own source of energy comes from the sun, and as plant matter can be regrown relatively quickly, it is classed as renewable.2

While a number of waste materials can be used to create biomass, it is predominantly sourced from wood. This practice is deemed sustainable by biomass advocates as it can utilise by-products of forest management or help to clear dead or sick trees from an area.2

The US Forest Service Wood calls wood an “abundant, sustainable, homegrown cellulosic resource”, adding that it could “significantly contribute to meeting 30% of US petroleum consumption from biomass sources by 2030”. In 2016, biomass made up 4.8% of total US energy consumption and 12% of renewable energy in the country.2

Who in the Industry Uses Biomass?

Our first example of a big-polluter business that is switching to biomass energy is the Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, England. This power station used to be the biggest polluter in western Europe, and has now reached almost 100% renewable energy. In eight years it has converted four of its six coal-fired units to biomass, and now only six percent of the plant’s power comes from coal. The plant now generates 15% of England’s renewable power. Most of the biomass used by Drax consists of low-grade wood, sawmill residue and trees with little commercial value from the United States. The material is compressed into sawdust pellets. By purchasing bits of wood not used for construction or furniture, Drax makes it more financially viable for forests to be replanted. And planting new trees helps offset biomass emissions.3

We hope to see more large greenhouse gas-emitting companies to make the switch to renewable energy!

References

1U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2019). Biomass explained. Retrieved from eia.gov: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/

2(August 3, 2018). Just how green is biomass? Retrieved from power-technology.com: https://www.power-technology.com/comment/biomass-renewable/

3 Ziady, Hannah. (October 23, 2019). How the dirtiest power station in western Europe switched to renewable energy. Retrieved from cnn.com: https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/23/business/drax-power-station/index.html