When people think of renewable energy, they usually think of solar or wind power. In some cases, hydroelectric or geothermal processes may be in the mix. But biomass is not often considered, for a variety of reasons. There are compelling economic reasons why biomass should receive more serious consideration. Biomass is a renewable energy that is derived from biological material from living or recently deceased organisms, the byproducts of those organisms, and byproducts or emissions resulting from human activity. Biomass sources are plentiful and diverse; they include wood products, dried vegetation, crop residues, agricultural byproducts, aquatic plants, food wastes, organic sludge from wastewater operations, municipal solid wastes and more.
Biomass is second only to hydropower in electricity generation. Because of relatively low cost, diversity of source and wide distribution, it has become a widely utilized source of energy. Biomass is flexible and multifaceted. It can be burned or incinerated to create energy, converted to biogas (similar to natural gas), or used to make transportable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. It also has the potential to be converted to valuable specialty chemicals that otherwise have to be generated using fossil fuels. Biomass is thus somewhat unique in the renewable arena, as it has the potential to be used in multiple ways.
Biomass systems have the added revenue feature of being a “multi-tasking” renewable which produces energy, fertilizer, and (in some cases), water. As biomass breaks down, it releases organic nitrogen, ammonia and phosphate compounds that can be used as fertilizers. These components are chemically very similar to commercial fertilizers. These facts all appear basic until you consider a couple of other facts. With increasing strains on resources, fertilizer prices have begun to rise. A significant level of high quality fertilizer is produced by anaerobic digester projects that use biomass as a feedstock. Analyses have shown that high conversion digester systems produce so much fertilizer that their revenues can be 3-4 times those of energy revenues. This means that in markets that have relatively low energy pricing, a biomass project that has the additional revenue from fertilizer production will have a stronger overall value proposition. In the face of that fact, wind or solar technologies – which can only produce energy revenue – may not be as economically attractive.
In a recent article in Morning Consult, Carl Zichella makes the case that achieving clean power is manageable regarding compliance with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Although providing renewable energy to supplant fossil fuels is essential, one should not lose sight renewable components that have multiple energy capabilities. Technological improvements have opened the door to relatively small anaerobic digestion installations that produce energy in the form of methane, high-grade fertilizer and water. High-conversion versions of these systems will have robust project pro formas that are bolstered by multiple renewable products. Renewable energy systems using biomass need to be seriously considered for long term planning of a clean power economy.
Dr. Alan Rozich is CSO for In-Pipe Technology and the author of Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming.