The oldest energy source available to man is still in use today; biomass energy is an abundant energy source from organic materials such as wood, algae, agricultural and forest residues, or crops like corn and soy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), biomass energy provided about 5 percent of the total primary energy used in the United States in 2017.
For thousands of years, biomass energy has been used for heating, cooking, and later also for manufacturing. Today, biomass is an important renewable energy source, which is also used to generate electricity. EIA data suggests that in 2018, about 2 percent of the total U.S. electricity generation came from biomass as a source. In the same year, the total U.S. electricity generation from solar was about 2.3 percent.
What is Biomass Energy?
Biomass energy, sometimes also called bioenergy, is a renewable energy resource, which originates from all kinds of living or recently living organisms. Like most other renewable energy sources, bioenergy is a converted form of the energy from the sun reaching the earth. Biomass is produced directly from the sun’s energy by plants through photosynthesis or indirectly by animals eating these plants.
Photosynthesis is the process of capturing the energy from the sun; plants and other organisms use the energy in the sunlight to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into complex carbohydrates and store them in the plants’ biomass. The stored chemical energy in these carbohydrates is released as heat when the biomass is burned, essentially turning back into carbon dioxide and water. Biomass can be burned directly or converted into other fuels.
Biomass energy resources include all organic materials from plants or animals. The energy stored in the biomass of trees, grass, or crops can be used, as well as residues from these plants. Organic waste material from forestry or agriculture, which would otherwise be disposed of, can be used as biomass energy sources. Even the organic components of garbage or waste products from the food or paper industries are a good sources of bioenergy. Another effective source of biomass energy is landfill gas (LFG), which is composed of about 50 percent methane.
While all biomass can be turned into energy, some plants have a higher energy content stored in their biomass than others. These energy crops are plants that are typically grown specifically for harvesting the energy in their biomass. Different types of crops are used to produce different types of biofuel or biogas: Corn, wheat, sugar cane, and other crops can be fermented into ethanol. Ninety percent of the U.S. ethanol production comes from corn. Soybean, canola, and sunflowers are used to distill biodiesel. Another source for biodiesel is animal fats, used cooking oils, and grease. Fifty-four percent of the U.S. biodiesel comes from soybeans. The largest biomass energy resource used in the U.S. is wood and forestry residue.
Converting Biomass to Energy
Biomass can be burned directly or together with fossil fuels to generate heat and electricity. Solid biomass, such as wood, grass, or garbage, can be easily stored and burned to produce power when it is needed. Bioenergy can also be used indirectly by converting biomass into liquid, solid or gaseous fuels. These biofuels can be used directly to generate heat, electricity or to power vehicles and equipment.
Biomass can be converted to methane and alcohols such as methanol or ethanol. Methane can fuel gas turbines to generate heat and electricity, while methanol can power fuel cells. Fuel cells are small power plants that can generate electricity to power cars, trucks, or trains. Ethanol can be mixed with gasoline and used as a fuel. The gasoline you purchase at the pump typically has up to 10 percent ethanol added. Ethanol fermentation also produces methane as a byproduct. Biodiesel is distilled from vegetable oils, animal fats, or algae and can be used in diesel vehicles and also as heating oil.
Benefits of Using Biomass Energy
Biomass energy is a renewable energy, which exists in abundance across the U.S. It has a significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially the use of methane from landfills, animal manure, and sewage treatment plants which would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is a greenhouse gas, which is potentially 28 to 36 times as effective as carbon dioxide. Burning biomass only releases as much carbon dioxide as the plant captured during its own growth.
Biomass is typically produced, harvested, and processed locally or within certain regions and can contribute significantly to the economies of these typically rural areas. Biomass power plants create local, sustainable jobs in energy generation, forestry, and agriculture while increasing energy security within the region.
Using waste products from plants and animals as a source of energy also decreases the amount of waste that ends up at landfills. Energy generated from waste biomass reduces waste management problems and lowers pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and potentially the use of fossil fuels.
How You Can Benefit from Biomass Energy at Home
While the cost of fossil fuels is not always predictable and tends to go up, the price for biofuels is more stable. Solid biomass energy sources such as wood, woodchip, or other wood products can be stored easily, and you can purchase them during the off-season. Wood and woodchip are two biomass energy fuels you can burn directly and cost-effectively in your home. In some cases, you may even be able to harvest your own supply.
If you’re thinking about going off the grid or if you simply want to make use of the biomass your backyard produces, you can even produce your own biogas at home using a digester. Digesters are basically enclosed compost bins, which speed up the decomposing process of the organic material inside while collecting the methane created during this process. As a byproduct, they’re producing fertilizer.
Another way you can benefit from biomass is for transportation. You can convert your car or truck to a more climate-friendly and cleaner vehicle by switching to biodiesel or flex-fuel. Flexible fuel vehicles (FFV) can operate with gasoline blended with up to 85 percent ethanol (E-85). Ethanol is mainly produced from corn.
The easiest way to benefit from biomass energy at home is by composting. Simply put all organic matter in a compost pile and use it as fertilizer in your vegetable or flower garden.