All things considered, there is considerable promise for biomass power generation. Regarding carbon emissions, it is easier for the public to wrap their heads around. After all, campfires and forest fires burn biomass – albeit at different scales and measures of control. Biomass is any organic material that can be converted into heat (then steam, electricity, etc). Wood is biomass, so are leftovers and whatever is left over after farmers harvest for the season. If left unused, all biomass would decompose back into the soil at some point. However, with today’s increasing demands for renewable energy sources, biomass may have more of a stake in the future of energy production.
Of course, this is not without its challenges. The viability of increasing biomass related energy production largely depends on how well we can source enough reliable biomass that meets environmental, social, and economic criteria. After all, the idea of renewable depends mainly on sustainability.
More attention than ever is placed on the “carbon neutrality” of how power is generated. In theory, biomass would be front and center to this ideal so long as the carbon dioxide, and other emissions, produced from burning biomass is absorbed by growing biomass (forests, algae, etc) on a 1:1 basis. As with everything, the variables are all over the place. While the lifecycle of biomass energy production could be a closed system, there are too many other energy sources in the field that are preventing this from happening.
Where is the biomass coming from? What we choose to grow on the limited farmlands we have available impacts all areas of the economy. Corn Ethanol sounded like a great idea for cars, but the corn grown for fuel displaced what was grown for livestock feed and ultimately compromised food costs. Does it make sense to grow biomass for the express purpose of using it as fuel? On one hand, denser biomass material would burn more effectively. On the other, processing biomass from waste products resolves the issue of having a waste product. On the third hand, intentionally growing biomass can create job opportunities in rural areas where it might be difficult to grow traditional crops.
Lastly, emissions and energy production are determined by what is burned. Some biomass gives off cleaner emissions than others. Some do not generate enough energy to be viable in smaller quantities, but are viable in larger quantities. Either way, it’s worth looking at the cross-section of efficient biomass with the least problematic emissions.
In the end, the most effective use of biomass energy production could be solely based on location and timing. Smaller incinerators, located in biomass heavy areas, could provide localized energy for communities with surpluses, freeing up grid congestion for larger communities nearby. Similarly, stockpiling biomass for use during higher demand seasons could also alleviate peak demands.
Sustainable biomass is worth looking into, and every energy source has merit. As engineers, we have a role in considering, designing, and debating how to implement the most sustainable energy production strategy possible. This means finding measures that are profitable and available while also meeting modern power demands. It may be a shift in biomass, and it may be a call to someone on our team to see if there is a way to reduce emissions and improve efficiencies of your current plant operations.