BIOMASS IS the world’s oldest & most efficient solar battery.
The amount of sunlight that reaches the earth’s surface during one hour is sufficient to power the entire world for a year (1). But the question is: How do we collect that energy? Sunlight disperses everywhere, shining all over the whole globe, making the energy very difficult to collect in a concentrated amount. While a tiny bit of this sunlight powers solar generators, a huge amount of this sunlight feeds trees and plants. And then these trees and plants store energy in their cells and, in effect, become solar batteries. By harvesting these solar batteries—this biomass—we are harnessing the power of the sun.
BIOMASS IS a renewable energy resource.
The term biomass is a sweeping one, but, in essence, biomass is plant matter containing stored solar energy. Biomass energy can be released by incinerating plant material.
A crucial difference between biomass and fossil fuels: biomass replenishes itself, or is renewed, within human time—decades or centuries—as opposed to geologic time—millions of years.
Fossil fuels were formed from organisms that died millions of years ago and are therefore not replenishable. But because biomass derives from plant material, vegetation, agricultural waste, or wood processing byproduct, it can always be renewed. Of course, biomass harvesters who are committed to sustainable practices replant trees to speed up the restoration process, whereas other practices can make biomass energy far less sustainable.
Even though biomass can take on many forms, we at Zilkha Biomass Power are creating energy from a very specific type of biomass: woody biomass.
BIOMASS IS healthy forests.
Forests are our greatest allies in keeping our planet’s ecosystems in balance because they take in CO2 during photosynthesis, greatly reducing greenhouse gases and creating an equilibrium between the carbon sinks, which include the atmosphere, vegetation, soil, oceans, marine life, and geological reservoirs like fossil fuels.
Today we let much valuable forest resource go unmanaged. A managed forest, compared to an unmanaged forest, is able to sequester much more CO2, making trees better solar batteries.
Conversely, “overstocked forests,” cautions Gregory Morris of the Green Power Institute, “are stressed by competition for scarce resources, including light and moisture, resulting in an overall poor level of ecosystem health. Stressed forests are less able to resist pest and disease outbreaks than healthy forests, and when fires strike overstocked forests, they tend to burn hotter and higher, with a greater degree of mortality than fires in healthy forests” (2). Catastrophic canopy fires also destroy property, contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and cost tax payers hundreds of millions of dollars every year to fight.
Another important reason to administer our forests: due to poor management, millions of acres of forests are lost every year to parasites and diseases. When diseased trees die, they do not sequester carbon, instead emitting CO2 and methane as they decay; and they do not absorb water, leading to soil instability and muddy runoff into streams. Also, diseases can spread to more and more trees, rendering the forest as a whole much less efficient. And insect infestations can attack forests—both healthy and weakened—with global warming exacerbating the problem because temperatures in forests are not reaching the usual lows that regulate insect infestations. The Mountain Pine Beetle has destroyed 3 million acres of forests in Colorado and Wyoming. This epidemic could have been mitigated or even avoided if the forests of Colorado and Wyoming had been well managed (3).
BIOMASS IS an efficient use of byproducts & waste.
The great news is that woody biomass is abundant and one of the best available sources of biomass on earth.
In forests we find plentiful biomass in the forms of forestry residuals and understory, a layer of vegetation beneath the canopy. Additionally, wood waste from furniture, paper, and lumber factories is often disposed of inefficiently, making it an excellent candidate for use as biomass. In total, more than 24,500 million cubic feet of available woody biomass are unused each year in the United States.
BIOMASS IS net neutral carbon management.
When biomass utilizes matter that would have been disposed of inefficiently in landfills or through agricultural field burning, or material which comes from sustainably managed forests, the process actually generates no increased greenhouse gas emissions, a circumstance described as net neutral or carbon neutral.
When trees grow, they absorb carbon from the atmosphere as part of photosynthesis. Because photosynthesis removes carbon from the atmosphere, it’s a form of carbon sequestration, removing it from another stage in the biogenic carbon cycle. Therefore, photosynthesis affects positively the greenhouse gas effect by removing CO2 from the atmosphere. However, when a plant dies and decays, it releases its carbon back to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane as part of the carbon cycle.
The burning of biomass occurs within the biogenic carbon cycle, returning to the atmosphere carbon that was previously absorbed via photosynthesis.
In the case of biomass from forest waste or byproducts, this material is already emitting greenhouse gases into the air as it decays. In the case of methane, this is especially dangerous. Methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 (4). When biomass is burned efficiently, no methane is released into the atmosphere. When biomass is allowed to decay, methane as well as carbon is released into the atmosphere.
BIOMASS IS part of carbon’s natural cycle.
A fixed amount of carbon exists on earth and is constantly recycled through carbon sinks, where carbon is stored for a period of time, in order for our planet to maintain healthy, balanced ecosystems.
Cyclical activities govern the continual redistribution of carbon: the circulating and roiling of the ocean surface, photosynthesis, and plant and animal respiration and decay. For example, photosynthesis allows plants to absorb carbon out of the atmosphere in the form of CO2; then animals consume this carbon when they eat plants or other animals. As plants and animals decay, the carbon is slowly released back into the atmosphere from which it came for subsequent recapture by growing plants.
BIOMASS IS a greenhouse gas control mechanism.
Most scientists agree that before the industrial revolution, the carbon cycle was stable; carbon sinks did not hold or release significantly different amounts of carbon over time, and the earth’s temperature was relatively constant over thousands of years. But now that most of our energy comes from fossil fuels, we are disturbing that stability by releasing carbon into the atmosphere at a much greater rate than ever before, and photosynthesis simply cannot keep up with such an overwhelming amount of CO2. The biogenic carbon cycle always remains balanced, but the entire carbon cycle of which it is a part can change with the influx of once-sequestered carbon. Fossil fuels discharge carbon that, because it has been “locked away in geological storage,” is a huge influx of extra carbon, upsetting the carbon cycle’s historical steadiness. The available amount of carbon in fossil fuels is four times greater than that of the carbon in the biogenic cycle; when redistributed, the extra carbon has devastating effects on the environment.
An overabundance of carbon and other greenhouse gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere create the greenhouse effect. Gases accumulating in the atmosphere force the earth to function as a greenhouse does. Just as the glass of a greenhouse prevents heated air from escaping, the greenhouse effect prevents the sun’s heat from reflecting back out into space; instead, the heat is retained, warming up the earth’s atmospheric temperatures.
BIOMASS IS dispatchable energy.
Dispatchable energy meets the increased demands of power suppliers at any given time. In contrast, intermittent energies, such as wind and solar, can be collected and distributed only when the wind blows or the sun shines. The capacity factor of wind energy—a result of the total time the wind blows and the mechanical reliability of the turbines at a wind farm—ranges from 25% to 45% in exceptional circumstances. Solar power’s capacity factor is approximately 19% (5).
Unlike wind or solar power, biomass energy, which is naturally stored solar energy, can be harvested in any environment and stored for later use to supply energy twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Biomass is always ready.
BIOMASS IS baseload.
Biomass is the missing piece in the renewable energy puzzle that can break our dependence on fossil fuels.
Though the use of renewable power has increased in the US, energy from wind and solar farms must be backed up by fossil fuel power plants to ensure consistent delivery of energy. That consistent power source, known as baseload, is the amount of power a utility must provide in order to meet the minimum requirements of its customers; it is the power available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Baseload power plants operate at all times of the year, as opposed to peaking power plants, which operate only when energy consumption spikes at a certain time of day or year. In order for an energy resource to be considered baseload, it must be able to safely meet its region’s continuous energy needs and supply a consistent amount of energy.
BIOMASS IS a new energy economy.
For many years now the digital economy has been advancing; with newspaper readership down and more people choosing digital devices over books or magazines, there is a sense that larger and lasting change is at work. Industries that produce paper products are certainly aware of this transformation, and the fiscal strain is felt all the way down to workers in the forests. If we could exchange this fading industry for one that is growing and vibrant, that uses the same readily available resource and similar production processes, and that is creating a new, in-demand product, why wouldn’t we? Furthermore, biomass harvesting employs the same amount of labor in the forest products industry regardless of the ultimate use of the product.
BIOMASS IS jobs.
No other renewable fuel industry establishes as many jobs as the biomass industry. We have an incredible positive impact on forestry employment, for example, creating and perpetuating sustainable jobs in a growing fuel market. And jobs are also generated in related industries.
- Quantifying Global Exergy Resources, Weston A. Hermann, Global Climate and Energy Project, Stanford University, April 2005.
- Bioenergy and Greenhouse Gases, Gregory Morris, PhD, Green Power Institute, Berkeley California, May 2008.
This article also discusses density of the pine forests as a cause of the epidemic. And Colorado State University recommends good forest management to avoid Pine Beetle infestation: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05528.html
- Bioenergy and Greenhouse Gases, Gregory Morris, PhD, Green Power Institute, Berkeley California, May 2008.
- Solar Versus Wind Power: Which Has the Most Stable Power Output?, John Laumer, http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/03/solar-versus-wind-power.php, Philadelphia, March 2008.