We hear about them all the time, leading edge solar energy projects, from individual homes all the way to massive solar energy fields out in the desert. Solar energy capture is sexy, and shiny and new. In reality, solar energy comes in many forms, including stored solar energy. Take woody biomass for example.
Biomass, according to Wikipedia, is defined as a renewable energy source comprised of biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms, commonly plant matter which is used to generate energy or produce heat.
The amount of woody biomass in the form of dead material in our forests is substantial and is a significantly underutilized carbon neutral1 energy resource. As an example, a recent report on woody biomass energy opportunities in Alabama indicates that based on recent harvests of 840,000 acres in 2008 there was an estimated 8.5 million tons of available biomass material annually from unused logging residues and cull (low-grade) timber.
According to a 2005 report co-written by the DOE and USDA, forest lands make up about one-third of the nation’s total land area and are capable of supplying about 368 million dry tons of biomass feedstock annually. Of this total, only 38 percent is currently being used. If fully utilized, this source would be “sufficient to sustainably displace 30 percent or more of the country’s present petroleum consumption.”
Some estimates suggest the opportunity is large enough that if efficiently utilized, woody biomass could replace up to 50% of the coal used to produce electricity in the United States, resulting in an enormous reduction in the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. This doesn’t even take into account the toxicity of coal ash, a waste product of burning coal as a fuel source; not a problem with biomass.
All sounds good, right? So why is it that the existing commercial biomass power generating industry in the United States, which consists of approximately 1,700 MW (megawatts) of operating capacity actively supplying power to the grid, only produces about 0.5 percent of the U.S. electricity supply?
The biggest limitation to using woody biomass is the cost to get it to the energy producers, primarily due to the cost of transporting the material. Even in the form of wood chips, the material has a significant amount of water content, which impedes transportation cost effectiveness. Additionally, coal fired power plants have to make significant capital expenditures to convert biomass into electrical energy.
There are many companies and entrepreneurs working on solutions to these limitations. Given the underutilized fuel source that is going to release carbon into the atmosphere anyway, the efforts should be worth the benefits.
Woody biomass may not a sexy renewable energy resource like solar collectors or wind power, but it may be the biggest “ugly stepsister” opportunity to solving a big portion of the energy problem and the impact on climate change due to CO2 emissions.
1: (Source: Wikipedia.com): Although fossil fuels have their origin in ancient biomass, they are not considered biomass by the generally accepted definition because they contain carbon that has been “out” of the carbon cycle for a very long time. Their combustion therefore disturbs the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere.