This special interest group is for professionals to connect and discuss all types of carbon-free power alternatives, including nuclear, renewable, tidal and more.

Question

What role does and will biomass play in the fuel source of tomorrow? Is it an answer to coal? Considered green energy? Sustainable?

Alan Ross's picture
Managing Editor APC Technologies

Experienced Chief Executive Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the think tanks industry. Skilled in Negotiation, Coaching, Sales, Team Building, and Management. Strong business...

  • Member since 2013
  • 55 items added with 49,701 views
  • Mar 12, 2022
  • 1729 views

I was recently introduced to a biomass company CEO who stated they are slated to grow by 50% within the next 3 years because of demand from the energy industry. And, the CEO affirmed that they were not alone, the entire industry is growing to meet the increased demand. 

For anyone with knowledge (Facts) or opinions (Insights), let's start a conversation. 

Your access to Member Features is limited.

Based on my experience biomass will continue to play a limited role. To be honest I don’t know if it is considered green (would guess no).

I can talk to one state and one state only, Michigan. Roughly 53% of the state is covered with forest. 

Pre-Covid, I was at a state conference and said that bio-mass would make a good winter fuel for electricity and heating to complement solar. The head of the Department of Natural Resources and his head forester were there and immediately jumped on my comments. Turns out that the a sustainable level of bio-mass from the just shy of 19 million acres of forest land in the state (if we stop using it for lumber, toilet paper, etc.) is about 15% of our annual electrical use, based on their internal studies. 

If we just burn cardboard, and other cellulose based post consumer products, they estimate it would be less than 7% of the state's needs. 

As to growing switch grass or other ag bio-mass the first comment is that it does not have the value per acre to displace food crops, or grazing land. The second comment was that it too would fail as the primary fuel to power the state. 

I went home after the meeting, pulled the MISO data for our zone, pulled the forest yield per year in our USDA zones, and other numbers and did a massive spread sheet. They were somewhat optimistic on what bio-mass could power in Michigan. 

You are welcome to generalize as you see fit. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 30, 2022

Doug, if you haven't seen it already, you might check out this documentary by fellow Michiganders with a different take on clean energy. The comments are almost as good as the film.

Planet of the Humans

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 1, 2022

The poor outlook of bio energy comes down to the miserable efficiency of biological capture of solar energy. Its in the range 0.1-1%, which is 20-200 times less than the efficiency of solar PV. .

Bio competes with food production and ecosystems for land, water, pesticides and fertilizers.

As I read these answers, I am drawn to one thing: There are passionate opinions on both sides, but there is no simple answer. Larry Eisenberg makes his case that biomass is the very definition of sustainability and is answered by Bob Meinetz and Andrew Blakers as the very definition of "un-sustainability", with solid reasons to back it up. 

Then along comes John, Mathew and Roger with more on the topic and great references to boot. That is what I had hoped would happen, but let's not stop there. Let's learn more and come to an Energy Central consensus about it. I like the analogy that it is simply another solar option, just using old growth stored carbon that can't sustain our planet let alone our energy needs. Interesting. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 24, 2022

"I like the analogy that it is simply another solar option, just using old growth stored carbon that can't sustain our planet let alone our energy needs."

Alan, that realization was an epiphany for me, and it isn't an abstraction. Over billions of years, evolution has rewarded organisms that can take energy from the sun and, together with CO2 and H2O, store it as potential energy in hydrocarbon chains - simple sugars. When plentiful water is available, these plants then use that stored energy to grow and reproduce. When animals eat those plants they do the same, but store it in more energy-dense molecules as lipids, or fats (after all, animals have greater energy needs). When either plants or animals die, they're consumed by bacteria, which break down their hydrocarbon chains into water and CO2, and the process repeats.

Over the course of eons, erosion has covered much dead organic material before it was consumed by bacteria, however. As it was covered by layers of sand, rocks, and sediment, it's been compressed into the hydrocarbon chains that we find in petrochemicals - essentially, different forms of oil. So fossil fuels, too, are solar energy - stored for millions of years underground.


Over the past ~60 million years that process has served to sequester a significant percentage of carbon from the atmosphere. The resulting "anti-greenhouse" effect now permits Earth to radiate much of the energy coming from the Sun each day back out to space. It's at least 18°C cooler now than it was 60 million years ago - the reason why we now have ice at the Earth's poles (although we're quickly losing it again), and the reason tropical swamps that once covered higher latitudes of the U.S. and other countries are now gone. For most reptiles, including dinosaurs and other cold-blooded creatures, this colder weather proved fatal. They were gradually replaced by animals which could generate their own heat: warm-blooded mammals.

But by burning fossil fuels, we're quickly re-introducing all of that carbon stored for eons underground to the atmosphere - and the Earth's climate, as it traps more energy from the sun, is returning to that of the dinosaurs. Barring any commitment to reduce fossil carbon emissions, warm-blooded mammals will disappear in coming eons, and likely will be replaced by a new incarnations of huge, smart lizards and snakes - who will then have global cooling to worry about!

Contrary to the views of some of the folks answering this question, biomass is the very definition of sustainability.  Cut it down and use it and more grows to replace the material taken.  This contrasts with the fossil fuels and nuclear fuel that have a very finite presence on Earth.  At some point all of the fossil fuels and likely radioactive material suitable to produce energy will be fully consumed. The fundamental issue / question about biomass is how it is used.  If it is just burned as has been done for centuries, we get climate change.  If it is processed in a high-tech manner, where products are produced and there is no off-gassing, then it becomes a very effective tool for energy production and needed by-product supply.  One other point is that sustainably managed forests to offer an excellent option for carbon capture.  Sustainably managed forests, with the undergrowth removed, offer the best resistance to fire. A proactive program to remove that undergrowth from all forests will produce a vast quantity of biomass.  Current practice has been to simply burn it.  Instead, technology is now available to very effectively utilize that material in a very effective, non-polluting manner.

The growth in the use of biomass for energy production and other production of other needed products in growing a very rapid pace.  New technology and new companies are springing up almost daily focusing on effective use of biomass.  Most of the major fossil fuel providers know this to be the case and are making large investments into biomass-based technology to change from a fossil fuel company to an energy company.  The potential change that we will see in this industry is really quite unlimited. 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 15, 2022

"Cut it down and use it and more grows to replace the material taken."

Larry no, biomass is the definition of unsustainability. Here's why:

Nearly all of the material commonly considered biomass today comes from old-growth trees, which have been chopped down and pelletized. Why? They've been using photosynthesis to collect and store solar energy for a century or more, and provide an extremely energy-dense source of energy. But even if we planted a seedling for every tree that's chopped down, they'd never regrow fast enough to make up for the energy from the trees that were pelletized.

It's estimated that the stored solar energy in all of the trees in the U.S. would be enough to provide all of our primary energy for one year. Then what?

Chopping them down faster doesn't make trees grow any faster - it's a simple matter of math. And no amount of subsidies, or technology, or investment, or wishful thinking can make one plus one equal three.

Biomass (apart from genuine waste) is a wretched energy source.

The solar-to-electricity or solar-to-motive energy of biomass is in the range 0.1-1%. Solar PV efficiency is 20%. Thus, solar uses 20-200 times less land than bio for the same energy service.

Bio competes with food production and ecosystems for land, water, pesticides and fertilizers.

The only large-scale biomass system for removing carbon from the atmosphere that is sustainable is restoration of complex ecosytems on former farmland. Large amounts of carbon can be stored above and below ground for centuries - provided the trees are not cut down.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 14, 2022

Nice to agree with you on these points, Andrew. Biomass is solar energy, but with dramatic losses in time and efficiency tacked on. Better off with PV cells and Li-Ion batteries - even if they aren't colored green.

Extremely disappointing that either biomass or biofuels are still viewed by some as "sustainable" sources of energy. Where to start? How the Biomass Industry Sent “Sustainability” Up in Smoke https://www.nrdc.org/experts/sasha-stashwick/how-biomass-industry-sent-s... Biofuels: 'Irrational' and 'worse than fossil fuels' https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-22127123 Dangerous delusions: biomass is not a renewable energy source https://www.oneearth.org/dangerous-delusions-biomass-is-not-a-renewable-... Burning pelletized, old-growth timber for the energy sequestered in its hydrocarbon bonds is no more sustainable than burning fossil fuel. The simpleminded belief we can borrow this energy for a century or two, to be repaid by planting trees now, is more dangerous than climate denial.

Hi Alan:

Good Answers below.

 

I've written several posts on using biomass for generation. I'll point you at three of these.

The first is an early post, which I'll send you to, since our Almond Orchards have just finished blooming:

https://energycentral.com/c/cp/nuts

The second post covers the first method of using biomass - direct combustion with carbon capture and storage (CCS):

https://energycentral.com/c/cp/new-networks-part-3-two-solutions

And the final one defines a second method that describes what is probably the best method: convert either non-woody biomass to biomethane using anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion / fermentation, or woody biomass to syngas using pyrolysis, and then methanation of the syngas to produce biomethane. Biomethane can use the normal gas pipeline to travel to a normal combined cycle plant, preferably one with CCS.

https://energycentral.com/c/cp/tech-race

-John

 

Hello,
I have spent a few years building prototype small scale decentralised biomass generators, based on Brayton cycle and using hot air as working fluid, operating as a gas turbine generator.
The technology would be ideal for a northern region looking to replace coal combustion with decentralised biomass fired plants on an intelligent grid.
Further, such decentralised plants can be placed closed to residential or agricultural sites that require heat energy, allowing the biomass energy usage to reach 95%.
Such plants can have an ROI in less than 3 years, and with correct maintenance, produce for decades.

There is certainly a major role for biomass in a sustainable energy future. Just how big that role will be, what the sources of biomass will be, and how the biomass will be processed are more difficult to predict. But if nothing else, BECCS (biomass energy with CCS) is almost certainly the most cost-effective way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. It can't scale to the level ultimately required, but it can help.

Some sources of biomass for energy are relatively non-controversial. Urban green wastes, agricultural wastes, food wastes -- no controversy about using them, but some about the best way to do so. Choices are anaerobic digestion for production of biogas and reclamation of nutrient content; low temperature pyrolysis for production of hydrogen and volatile hydrocarbons, with activated biochar as residue; aerobic digestion for production of ethanol and a nearly pure CO2 waste stream; oxy combustion for maximum power generation, an easily captured CO2 waste stream, and nutrient mineral salts reclaimed from ashes. And when all else fails (or is deemed too expensive) rapid high temperature composting for low grade space heat and soil enhancement. Using sawdust, bark, and wood chips from lumber production to make wood pellets is also relatively non-controversial. Somewhat more controversial, but finding growing acceptance, is forest thinning and clearing of underbrush for fire prevention. Generally opposed are energy crops grown on agricultural land in competition with food crops. Really awful but still big business is clearing of rainforests to plant palm oil plantations for production of "carbon neutral" aviation and diesel fuels.

Unfortunately, the profitability and business case for the various alternatives is more or less proportional to the environmental harm they do. 

Tap Into The Experience of the Network

One of the great things about our industry is our willingness to share knowledge and experience.

The Energy Central Q&A platform allows you to easily tap into the experience of thousands of your colleagues in utilities.

When you need advice, have a tough problem or just need other viewpoints, post a question. Your question will go out to our network of industry professionals and experts. If it is sensitive, you can post anonymously.