July 28, 2011

Biomass, the basic facts

Biomass may indeed be the wave of our power future. But what exactly is biomass or biofuel?

It is organic which means that is was a living plant or animal--wood, crops of all kinds, manure, and even metahne from garbage in landfills. Ethanol from corn is only one type. Switchgrass from the plains is a renewable source that is preferred because it doesn't compete for food.

The great thing about biomass is that it contains stored energy from the sun and it's a renewable energy source because we can grow more of it--unlike coal, oil, or gas. Biomass can be converted to other useable forms of energy too, such as methane gas or transportation fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Corn and sugar cane can be fermented to produce ethanol. Biodiesel, another transportation fuel, can be produced from left-over food products like vegetable oils and animal fats.

So why is Dominion Virginia Power jumping on the biomass bandwagon? The company recently announced they'd soon be converting three of their smaller coal-fired plants into biomass-burning facilities, to try to attain the voluntary goal (yes, voluntary in Virginia) of providing more of our power from renewable sources by 2013. They will most likely be using the waste from Virginia pulp factories.

How Much Biomass Is Already Used for Fuel? Only about 4 percent of the energy used in the United States in 2010. Of this, about 46 pecent was from wood and wood-derived biomass, 43 percent from biofuels (mainly ethanol), and about 11 percent from municipal solid waste.

The Union of Concerned Scientists' website reports: " When done well, biomass energy brings numerous environmental benefits—particularly reducing many kinds of air pollution and net carbon emissions. Biomass can be grown and harvested in ways that protect soil quality, avoid erosion, and maintain wildlife habitat. However, the environmental benefits of biomass depend on developing beneficial biomass resources and avoiding harmful resources, which having policies that can distinguish between them."

Click here to read what Cory Nealon wrote about biomass in a recent Daily Press article. Or here for a great website that explains it in easy-to-understand terms.