A colleague of mine recently shared an article about how the Toronto Zoo was going to be using the waste from animals to generate power for its facilities.
I have to admit the images that went through my mind were, at first, not the most pleasant, though they were colorful. However, after reading the article, I realized my perceptions didn’t reflect the reality. Above all, it made me realize just how diverse the raw materials (in this case biomass) we now use for energy generation is.
What is Biomass?
Aside from generating energy for a Zoo, biomass, as this type of energy source is called, can also be used to heat houses and fuel vehicles, amongst other uses.
But biomass is not just animal waste. According to a report from the Biomass Energy Center, there are different categories: Virgin wood, Energy crops, Agricultural residues, Food Waste, and Industrial Waste and co-products.
It also has many uses. According to report from Planete-Energie, biomass can used as fuel in wood-burning stoves that supply radiation to supply heating in France. It can be used to produce biofuels for public and private transportation. In addition, scientists have been experimenting with microorganisms that convert plant cellulose into sugar that eventually can be converted into bioethanol (a.k.a. ethanol alcohol) that, in turn, can be mixed with gasoline. And even further, another use is as biogas, achieved by turning biodegradable waste (mainly household waste) into methane gas, similar to natural gas.
How Important is Biomass?
In its Annual Energy Outlook 2012 Early Release, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that non-hydro power generation increases were to be led by wind and biomass.
Among other important observations, the report also highlights two interesting findings:
1.) Non-hydro renewable energy resources now accounts for 33% of the expected growth in electricity generation for the period from 2010 to 2035, and
2.) As shown in Figure 1 below, the share of Biomass in energy generation increases significantly as a result of federal regulations requiring the use of more biomass-based transportation fuels and the co-firing of biomass with coal, also as a result of state level legislation. Furthermore, traditional combined-heat-and-power (CHP) generation in sectors such as pulp and paper industry continue to contribute to overall biomass production.
On a global scale, a report from the UK Energy Research Centre published in November 2011 reported that biomass could actually generate one fifth of global energy without impacting food production. That is an important share, more so considering that it is an effective use and transformation of waste into energy.
What is the Problem with Biomass?
Just like in any situation there are advantages and disadvantages when embracing a specific type of raw material to generate energy.
While the transformation of biomass into energy should be more beneficial because less landfill is required for waste storage and less burning of fossil fuels is used when biofuels are produced, the use of biomass does has its drawbacks.
The Massachusetts Environmental Energy Alliance, for example, states several reasons why the use of biomass might outweighs its benefits. Some of them include increasing air pollution, greenhouse gases, deforestation, water use and pollution of rivers.
While we continue to look for alternative sources to lower the consumption of fossil fuels and control global warming, the balance will probably lie in a system or combination of alternatives that provides the most effective and efficient use of our resources, including biomass.
I must admit that I no longer have a skeptical view of biomass. It is a raw material that can be transformed into energy. The end result (i.e. heating, electricity, or fuel) still has to be efficiently managed. Our ZEMA Suite of software is an enterprise tool developed to manage your data and information needs. Below is a sample of the biomass curves produced with ZEMA Suite.
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