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5.3: Biomass Energy

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    12140
  • Biomass energy is from the energy stored in materials of biological origin such as plants and animals. Biomass energy is the oldest energy source used by humans. Until the Industrial Revolution prompted a shift to fossil fuels in the mid-18th century, biomass energy was the world's dominant fuel source. It includes direct combustion of solid biomass to provide energy for heating, cooking, and even generating electricity. The most common source for direct combustion is wood, but energy can also be generated by burning animal manure (dung), herbaceous plant material (non-wood), peat (partially decomposed plant and animal tissues), or converted biomass such as charcoal (wood that has been partially burned to produce a coal-like substance). Biomass can also be converted into a liquid biofuels used to power vehicles such as ethanol from corn, sugarcane residue and soybeans or even used cooking oil for biodiesel. Biomass energy can also be in gaseous form such as methane. Currently, about 12 percent of the world's energy comes from biomass (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Biomass is most frequently used as a fuel source in many developing nations, but with the decline of fossil fuel availability and the increase in fossil fuel prices, biomass is increasingly being used as a fuel source even in developed nations.

    5.3.1: Direct combustion of solid biomass

    Using wood and charcoal made from wood, for heating and cooking can replace fossil fuels and may result in lower CO2 emissions. If wood is harvested from forests or woodlots that have to be thinned or from urban trees that fall down or needed be cut down anyway, then using it for biomass does not impact those ecosystems. However, wood smoke contains harmful pollutants like carbon monoxide and particulate matter. For home heating, it is most efficient and least polluting when using a modern wood stove or replace insert that are designed to release small amounts of particulates. However, in places where wood and charcoal are major cooking and heating fuels such as in industrializing countries, the wood may be harvested faster than trees can grow resulting in deforestation.

    9Biomass is also being used on a larger scale, where small power plants are powered by biomass such as woodchips (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). For instance, Central State Hospital, Milledgeville, GA has a woodchip burning plant that was the most advanced system available for its time and operating today. Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, has had a wood-burning boiler since the mid-1980's that processes about 20,000 tons of locally and sustainably harvested wood chips, the equivalent of 1.17 million gallons (4.43 million liters) of fuel oil, avoiding 13,757 tons of emissions, and saving the university over $1.8 million in heating costs. The University's steam-generating wood-burning facility now satisfies more than 75 percent of the campus's heat and domestic hot water needs. For more information about this, click here Colgate University.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A biomass (woodchip) power plant in Germany. Image from Wikimedia Public Domain.

    Waste products of various industries and processes such as lumber mill sawdust, paper mill sludge, yard waste, oat hulls from an oatmeal processing plant, woody debris from logging, organic waste from feedlots, and residue from crops can also be used for energy. Waste to energy processes are gaining renewed interest as they can solve two problems at once: 1) disposal of waste as landfill capacity decreases, and 2) production of energy from a renewable resource. In the United States, several plants have been constructed to burn urban biomass waste and use the energy to generate electricity. Many of the environmental impacts are similar to those of a coal plant like air pollution, ash generation, etc. Since the fuel source is less standardized than coal and hazardous materials may be present in municipal solid waste (MSW), or garbage, incinerators and waste-to-energy power plants need to clean the stack gases of harmful materials. The U.S. EPA regulates these plants very strictly and requires anti-pollution devices to be installed. If not contained, waste is distributed in many ecosystems. The ash from these plants may contain high concentrations of various metals that were present in the original waste. If ash is clean enough it can be recycled as a MSW landfill cover or to build roads, cement block and artificial reefs. Also, while incinerating at high temperature many of the toxic chemicals may break down into less harmful compounds.

    5.3.2: Gaseous Biomass

    Organic material can be converted to methane, the main component of natural gas, by anaerobic decomposition or fermentation, a process that utilizes anaerobic bacteria. Methane is a relatively clean fuel that burns efficiently. It can be generated from any kind of organic waste such as municipal sewage and garbage, livestock manure, kitchen, and garden scraps. In fact, municipal landfills are active sites of methane production contributing annually to methane in the atmosphere and to global warming. This gas can and is currently being captured by numerous landfills around the United States that burn it to generate electricity at power plants or supply it to homes for heating. The electricity may replace electricity produced by burning fossil fuels and result in a net reduction in CO2 emissions. Burning methane produced from manure provides more heat than burning the dung itself, and the sludge left over from bacterial digestion is a rich fertilizer, containing healthy bacteria as well as most of the nutrients originally in the dung. The main environmental impacts are from the construction of the plant itself. Burning methane releases CO2 and although CO2 is a greenhouse gas, its global warming potential is much lower than that of methane (see chapter 7). Also, since this methane if from organic waste resulting from ongoing photosynthetic processes, it is considered carbon-neutral, unlike CO2 from fossil fuels.

    5.3.3: Liquid Biofuels

    Biofuels are transportation fuels produced from plant sources and used to power vehicles. The most common ones are ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, is produced by fermenting crops such as corn, sugarcane, and other crops and then mixed with conventional gasoline. As an additive, ethanol lowers reliance on conventional oil and increases the combustion efficiency of gasoline, reducing pollutant emissions. In Brazil, which has a sizeable ethanol industry based on sugarcane, all gasoline sold contains 25 percent alcohol, and over 70 percent of the cars sold each year can run on either ethanol or gasoline. Ethanol-gasoline mixtures burn cleaner than pure gasoline but are more volatile and thus have higher "evaporative emissions" from fuel tanks and dispensing equipment. These emissions contribute to the formation of harmful, ground level ozone and smog. Gasoline requires extra processing to reduce evaporative emissions before it is blended with ethanol.

    Biodiesel which is essentially vegetable oil, can also be derived from a wide range of plant sources, including rapeseed, sunflowers, and soybeans, and can be used in most conventional diesel engines. Biodiesel can also be made from used vegetable oil and has been produced on a very local basis. Because it burns more cleanly than its petroleum-based counterpart, biodiesel can reduce pollution from heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks and buses. Compared to petroleum diesel, biodiesel combustion produces less sulfur oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and unburned and other hydrocarbons, but more nitrogen oxide.

    Calculating the net energy or CO2 generated or reduced in the process of producing the biofuel is crucial to determining its environmental impact. Biofuels may be derived from parts of plants not used for food (cellulosic biomass) thus reducing that impact. Cellulosic ethanol feedstock includes native prairie grasses, fast growing trees, sawdust, and even waste paper. Also, in some parts of the world, large areas of natural vegetation and forests have been cut down to grow sugarcane for ethanol and soybeans and palm-oil trees to make biodiesel. This is not sustainable land use.

    Biomass energy may be considered to be carbon-neutral because the plants that are used to make them (such as corn and sugarcane for ethanol, or soy beans and palm oil trees for biodiesel) take up CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis as they grow and may offset the CO2 produced when burned. If the biomass is not burned for energy generation, the carbon contained in the biomass would still be returned to the atmosphere as CO2 when the organisms die and decompose to complete the cycle. Burning biomass, therefore, does not result in new additional CO2 in the atmosphere but rather returns carbon that came from the atmosphere and used to produce the biomass in the first place. On the other hand, burning fossil fuels introduces new carbon into the atmosphere that was previously stored deep in the Earth’s crust and would have stayed there if we (humans) did not extract it.

    5.3.4: Environmental Impacts of Biomass Energy

    A major challenge of biomass is determining if it is really a more sustainable option. The energy content of some biomass energy sources may not be as high as fossil fuels so more must be burned to generate the same energy. It often takes energy to make energy and biomass is one example where the processing to make it may not be offset by the energy it produces. If traditional monoculture crops like corn or soybeans are used, they require major quantities of fossil fuel to manufacture fertilizer, run farm machines, and ship the fuel to markets, so these biofuels do not always offer significant net energy savings over gasoline and diesel fuel. In such instances, biofuels may not be carbon-neutral because the process of producing the biofuels results in more CO2 added to the atmosphere than that removed by the growing crops. Even if the environmental impact is net positive, for example if renewable energy sources are used to make the biofuels, the economic and social effects of growing plants for fuels need to be considered. The land, fertilizers, water, and energy used to grow biofuel crops could be used to grow food crops instead. The competition of land for fuel vs. food can increase the price of food, which has a negative effect on society. It could also decrease the food supply and increase malnutrition and starvation globally.

    Trees that are cut for firewood are frequently not replanted. In order to be used sustainably, one tree must be planted for every one cut down. If too much biomass is taken it can reduce forest and grassland contributions to ecosystem services. Forests and grasslands help take CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and the loss of photosynthetic activity results in increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming since CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Burning biomass directly (wood, manure, etc.) produces high particulate material pollution (see chapter 6 on Air Pollution), produces CO2 and deprives the soil of nutrients it normally would have received from the decomposition of the organic matter. Each type of biomass energy source, therefore, must be evaluated for its full life-cycle impact in order to determine if it is really advancing sustainability and reducing environmental impacts.