A review of alternative energy approaches will show the significant advantages of biomass, and a key characteristic is that combustion does not add to carbon cycle in the unsustainable way that fossil fuels do. As the levels of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, continue to rise, the need to address the sources is urgent the world is to avoid irreversible climate change.
Biomass is a renewable source of organic energy coming from a wide variety of materials including alcohol fuels, tree roots, branches, wood shavings and chips as well as from agricultural waste such as livestock manure, silage and crop residues. The fuel for biomass reactors can either be specially grown, such as miscanthus, switch grass, hemp or poplar and willow trees, or as a by-product such as wood pellets.
One of the obvious advantages of biomass is reducing the need to burn fossil fuels to produce heat, steam and electricity in industrial, residential and farming settings. Biomass is also useful in that it has a relatively high availability with the option for continuous replanting and so by definition is renewable, when the carbon released by burning is drawn back during plant photosynthesis, hence the carbon neutrality of this energy source.
When biomass is taken from agricultural wastes such as straw and husks it is effectively a by-product and so it increases the value of the original agricultural crop. The subsequent replanting acts as a carbon sink for the carbon dioxide released during combustion, while at the same time releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.
With the ever present pressure on landfill sites to take municipal waste streams, the idea of getting biomass from these sites will ultimately see a cut in waste volumes accumulating in these locations, which are the cause of significant releases of methane, a greenhouse gas with over twenty times the potency of carbon dioxide.
An alternative to combustion of biomass is their use in a way that has a lesser impact on the environment. The process called anaerobic digestion, where municipal and animal wastes are converted into gases, is another way of driving turbines to generate electricity. This is an alternative to burning the biomass with the need to plant enough fast growing trees as a carbon sink to make the process carbon neutral.
Increased combustion efficiency can be achieved in transport vehicles by employing ethanol derived from biomass in a variety of new biofuel mixes, with the added benefit of being cleaner burning than the traditional longer chain carbon fossil fuels. Evidently biomass fuels have uses in producing heat and electricity as well as an alternative transport fuel to petroleum derivatives.
It seems governments across the world see the growth of new renewable energy plants as one way to address the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. A key consideration, however, is the need for a sufficient and steady level of baseload supply, as it is not enough to just provide extra capacity to meet peak demands. Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and the sun does not always shine, and the tides have to turn, all are periods when no electricity can be produced, while the advantages of biomass sources is that they do not have this constraint.
The author, David Phillips, lives on the beautiful island of Anglesey off North Wales, UK and runs a helpful online resource covering local news and information. When looking at the exciting future potential of biomass Anglesey has a very interesting story to tell.
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