Learn about the capabilities and potential of biomass energy.
What exactly is biomass?
Biomass is one of the oldest forms of renewable energy. In simple terms, biomass is organic material that comes directly from plants and animals, and when it's burned, it can heat water, homes and be put to many other uses. Biomass is still an essential fuel for many developing countries, and it can come in many forms1.
Here is a list of the most common biomass forms used today:
- Wood: Wood is one of the most commonly used and most basic types of biomass. A wood stove can provide heat for a home, heat water and cook meals. Firewood is used most often, but some alternative forms exist, such as wood pellets, wood chips, lumber sawdust, and tree waste.
- Crops: When crops are harvested, often there is plenty of organic material left over that is not consumable. That leftover material can be dried and used as biomass fuel. The most commonly used crops are corn, soybeans, sugar cane, switchgrass, algae and other food processing residues.
- Solid waste: Many cities have incinerators that are used to burn solid waste to generate electricity. The most commonly burned solid waste items include paper, cotton, wool, food, yard clippings and wooden objects like furniture.
- Sewage: Animal manure is a standard biomass fuel used in some developing countries. For example, farming communities living high in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia will use dried llama and alpaca manure to produce heat for their homes and water systems.
How is biomass energy created?
Four main processes convert biomass into energy. The first and most common is direct combustion. After combustion, there are thermochemical, chemical and biological conversions that can take place to produce different types of fuels.
Let us take a look at each of these processes in a little more detail:
- Direct combustion: Direct combustion is the process of burning biomass material to convert it into valuable energy. This process can heat buildings, heat water, generate heat for industrial uses and generate steam turbines.
- Thermochemical conversion: Thermal chemical conversion is a process that converts biomass into solid, liquid or gaseous fuels.
- Chemical conversion: When vegetable oil, animal fat and other types of grease are converted into fatty acids, biodiesel is created. Biodiesel can then be used as an additive to power our cars and trucks.
- Biological conversion: Biological conversion uses the process of fermentation to convert biomass into ethanol. Ethanol is another fuel type that can be used to power cars, trucks and farming equipment.
Biomass in its natural state is not an energy-producing material. It takes one of the above processes to convert the organic material into energy.
Is biomass renewable or nonrenewable?
Most people agree that biomass is a renewable energy source. The main reason why most people consider biomass a form of renewable energy is because the organic materials used in biomass energy production can be reproduced in a short period. Fossil fuels can take several thousand or millions of years to be produced, a tree takes only 30 years and corn stalks are produced every year. Animal manure is produced daily. Since biomass materials are abundant and can be easily replenished, they can be considered renewable energy sources2.
What are the different types of biomass?
Biomass comes in many different forms, such as wood or other agricultural products, solid waste, gas produced from landfills and various alcohol fuels.
Wood and other agricultural biomass are responsible for around 79% of the biomass energy produced. These types of biomass can come in wooden logs, wooden pellets, wood chips, bark and sawdust. Additionally, the leftover organic material from the processing of food can be used to make biomass fuel as well. For example, corn stalks, cobs, and the roots of the corn are commonly used as biomass fuel.
Waste-to-energy plants are scattered throughout the world. Burning solid waste to generate electricity is not as cost-effective as burning coal. However, it can be just as productive while helping to clear landfills of accumulated solid waste. Clearing landfills is an additional benefit that makes waste-to-energy plants beneficial, even if the process costs more than burning coal. Additionally, there is a limited amount of coal. Solid waste will continue to be produced as long as humans exist.
Methane is produced when dead plants and animals decay. Landfills in the United States and other parts of the world are required by law to collect the methane produced from the animal, plant and food waste in these landfills. Methane, when collected and purified, can act pretty much precisely like natural gas. Methane and natural gas are used to heat and cool homes, heat water and produce electricity.
Ethanol and methanol can be used as motor fuel. These two types of alcohol fuel are made from wheat, corn and other agricultural products3.
How safe is biomass energy?
There are some downsides to using biomass to generate electricity. However, in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created regulations to make the potential negative impacts that biomass energy generation creates less harmful to the environment. For example, when municipal solid waste-to-energy plants burn garbage, it can generate pollution and release chemicals and substances into the air. This has the potential to impact the citizens within and around that city negatively. The EPA then requires these waste-to-energy plants to use specific devices to limit the amount of air pollution created. The machines most commonly used by waste-to-energy plants include scrubbers, fabric filters and electrostatic precipitators. These help lower the concentration levels and neutralize some of the harmful chemicals produced when burning solid waste.
The main downside of the liquid biofuels produced from organic material, such as ethanol and biodiesel, is land utilization. Because biofuels are mainly produced from corn and soybeans that are grown on existing agricultural land, there can be an indirect land-use effect when the corn and soy are taken out of the market where they would otherwise be used for food and animal feed.
These are just two of the main downfalls that exist when it comes to using biomass to produce energy. Several others may be worth exploring; however, compared to the continued combustion of fossil fuels, the benefits of biomass outweigh both the disadvantages of biomass and fossil fuel use4.
Where is biomass used?
If we are only looking at the United States, most biomass consists of corn grain converted to ethanol and soybean converted to biodiesel. In many regions of the world that may be considered the developing world, biomass most commonly comes in wood for heat, cooking, and heating water5.
Can biomass be used in homes?
Biomass can be used in homes in the form of a wood stove which provides heat, cooks food, heats water, and dries clothing. Having a nice sauna powered by a wood stove can be a social and relaxing experience. Having a fire pit where you burn wooden logs can also provide another recreational activity that you, your friends and your family can enjoy together.
How much energy does a biomass plant produce?
Depending on the size of the biomass plant, the amount of energy produced annually can range from two or four meg-watts to 100 megawatts. However, the average power plant produces around 2.6 megawatts of electricity annually. That is enough to power about 26,000 homes per year6.
Is renewable or nonrenewable energy better for our future?
Renewable energy is better for our future, environment, and personal lives because it's not burned like fossil fuels are. Therefore, they do not send pollutants into the atmosphere, thus providing a healthier and cleaner environment. In some cases, individuals may believe they do not have access to renewable energy. However, with a bit of research and awareness, you may discover that you do. As an Inspire member, you can access renewable energy for one flat monthly price.
If you're looking for a quick and easy way to make an impact, sign up for a 100% clean energy supply plan for your home.
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