Biomass Energy

Discussion

Biomass energy is energy derived from sunlight via energy crops such as trees, grain crops, oil seedcrops, and sugar cane. It is renewable and (potentially) greenhouse neutral.

Wood from trees can be burned to heat buildings or drive electricity generators.

Ethanol from sugar cane, methanol from grain such as wheat, and biodiesel from oil seeds such as canola, can be used to fuel transport vehicles.

Biomass crops and plantations compete with nature for land and water resources. However, fuelwood tree plantations with appropriate understory species can provide much needed wildlife habotat.

Greenhouse Intensity

Energy derived from biomass results is potentially greenhouse neutral, because the carbon dioxide released by combustion was taken out of the atmosphere as the biomass grew. (Biomass energy is not greenhouse gas free, so long as fossil fuels are consumed to produce it, eg by trucks taking wood to an electricity generator.)

Renewability

Biomass energy is renewable. Derived from sunlight, it won't run out, so long as we replenish the soil in which the biomass is grown.

Energy Storage

Biomass, unlike some other renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels, allows the energy to be stored and used when needed with minimal energy loss. (Storing electricity from wind turbines and solar panels requires batteries and so results in significant energy loss.)

Biodiversity Protection

Plantations of native vegetation could help restore habitats, or at least provide corridors that allow wildlife to move between remaining habitat fragments.

But using waste wood from timber logging in old growth forests might encourage more logging, thus causing more habitat destruction (through logging) than it saves (by offsetting coal burning and hence slowing climate change).

Subtopics

Biodiesel - Biodiesel, produced from vegetable oil, can substitute for fossil-diesel in transport and heating and electricity generation.

Biofuels - Biofuels such as biodiesel, ethanol and methanol, can be a greenhouse-neutral, renewable energy source for use in transport vehicles, stationary engines, and small electricity generators.

Biomass Cofiring - Wood can be substituted for some of the coal used in coal-fired power stations.

Biomass Electricity - Electricity is potentially greenhouse neutral if produced from biomass such as plantation fuelwood.

Fuelwood and Biodiversity - Fuelwood plantations can have a positive or negative effect on biodiversity, depending on where they are established and how they are managed.

Fuelwood Plantations - Tree plantations can be a source of fuel wood - wood or woodwaste - for electricity generation or methanol production.

Olive Residue Power - The residue left after pressing olives for olive oil can be burned to generate electricity.

Wood Gasification - Wood Gasification treats wood to produce a gas which can fire a turbine to generate electricity.

Wood Waste Energy - Wood residue from timber production can be burned to generate electricityl.

Readings

What is biomass energy?

Biomass - Australian Greenhouse Office

Biomass is the name given to any recent organic matter that has been derived from plants as a result of the photosynthetic conversion process. Biomass energy is derived from plant and animal material, such as wood from forests, residues from agricultural and forestry processes, and industrial, human or animal wastes. Australia is richly endowed with a variety of biomass resources.

The energy value of biomass from plant matter originally comes from solar energy through the process known as photosynthesis. The chemical energy that is stored in plants and animals (that eat plants or other animals), or in the wastes that they produce, is called bioenergy. During conversion processes such as combustion (burning), biomass releases the energy stored in it's carbohydrates.

Biomass can be used directly for electricity generation, steam for industrial uses, heating, cooking or indirectly by converting it into a liquid or gaseous fuel (eg ethanol from sugar crops or biogas from animal waste). An example of biomass used for renewable energy generation in Australia is the use of sugar cane waste, or bagasse, for electricity production in sugar mills.

Potential for greenhouse reduction

Alternative Fuel Could Significantly Reduce CO2 Emissions. WWF. 2004

Forest products such as wood chips can be used to make biomass.

Carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by around 1,000 megatonnes per year, if OECD countries used biomass - fuel generated from agriculture and forest products - instead of coal to generate electricity, according to a report, Biopowerswitch (PDF), by WWF and the European Biomass Association (AEBIOM).

Biomass, a cost-effective and carbon-neutral source of energy, could provide 15% (from the current 1%) of the electricity demand from industrialized countries by 2020. It could supply power to 100 million homes, and is equivalent to replacing about 400 traditional large power stations. The substantial increase of biomass for clean power production would require less than 2% of land from industrialized nations and will not compete with food production and nature conservation. 

The production of biomass will create up to 400,000 jobs by 2020, particularly in rural areas. In the Northeast, Southeast and West Coast regions of the US alone, the biomass industry has already provided about 70,000 jobs. Sweden is switching to biomass as part of the government’s commitment to phase out nuclear power. 

The big advantage that biomass offers over other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar is that it can be stored and used when needed, to provide a constant, non-fluctuating supply of electricity. 

The report calls on industrialized countries to reform their agricultural policies to support the production of energy crops for biomass. And to develop and enforce best practice guidelines for biomass production to minimize any negative social, economic, or environmental impacts. 

The EU should show global leadership by setting a target to supply 25% of its primary energy demand from renewable energy sources by 2020. 

There is a huge untapped biomass resource across Europe with potential for delivering sustainable energy on a wide scale. If governments and the power sector do not act now to encourage biomass as a long-term, stable, and secure option for renewable energy, they will lose out on a big opportunity to fight climate change and increase energy security.

How to source biomass to avoid environmental impacts

Guidelines for Sourcing Materials - Your Home Technical Manual, Australian Greenhouse Office

Energy sourcing options:

Best Options

Renewable resources (solar, wind, waste-biomass-to-energy) where siting or material sourcing does not involve native species habitats or other significant impacts on native species and does not create a major demand for land.

Second-Best Options

Energy generated with a very small ecological impact within natural systems; purpose-grown biomass crops on long-cleared land.

Second-Worst Options

Biomass-to-energy using wood from native forest; fossil fuels from long cleared land.

Worst Options

Energy from native habitats with significant habitat disruption/damage; fossil fuels.

Links

Bioenergy Australia - Government-industry forum to foster and facilitate the development of biomass for energy, liquid fuels, and other value added bio-based products.

2006.06.16