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Biomass Demands More Serious Consideration for Renewable Energy Systems

When people think of renewable energy systems, they usually think of solar or wind technologies. In some cases, hydroelectric or geothermal processes may be in the mix. Biomass is frequently not considered for a variety of reasons. However, there are compelling economic reasons why biomass should receive more serious consideration. Biomass is a renewable energy source that is derived from biological material from living, or recently living, organisms, the byproducts of organisms, and the byproducts or emissions that are the result of human activity. Biomass sources are plentiful and diverse. Sources include wood products, dried vegetation, crop residues, agricultural byproducts, aquatic plants, food wastes, organic sludge from wastewater operations, municipal solid wastes and the like.

Biomass is only second to hydropower in the generation of electricity. Because of relatively low cost, diversity of source, and wide distribution, it has become a widely-utilized source of energy. This renewables feedstock is a very flexible and “multi-tasking” renewable energy source since it can produce renewable fertilizer and water. Biomass 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 such as petroleum. Biomass is thus very unique in the renewable arena, as it has the ability to be a supply source for multiple renewables including energy, fertilizer, and water. 

It is interesting to note that, in addition to generating renewable energy, biomass can also be a source of green fertilizer and recycled water, particularly with anaerobic systems. Using anaerobic systems is particularly advantageous since there are thousands of installed systems worldwide which can be retrofit to achieve fertilizer and water production. As biomass breaks down, it releases organic nitrogen, ammonia, and phosphate compounds that are essentially fertilizers. These components are chemically very similar to commercial fertilizers. These facts all appear basic until one considers a couple of other aspects. One aspect is that 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 fertilizer revenues can be 3 to 4 times those of energy revenues. This means that geographies or 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. For example, in these situations, wind or solar technologies which can only produce energy revenue may not be viable or as economically attractive. Conversely, biomass systems have the added revenue feature of being a “multi-tasking” renewable which produces energy, fertilizer, and (in many cases), water.

In an 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 energy currently produced by large power plant installations using fossil fuels is essential, one should not lose sight of the strategy that includes a renewable component that has distributed 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. For all the reasons that have been articulated, renewable energy systems using biomass need to be heavily considered for long term planning of a clean power economy.

Alan F. Rozich,  Dr Al



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