Plentiful Supply of Renewable Biomass but is it Sustainable?

One of the most plentiful alternative energy sources is biomass energy. It is plentiful, renewable and also recovers and recycles waste and waste by-products.

The problems with fossil fuels have opened the door for the increasing use of renewable energies like energy from biomass.

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) 6% of Canada’s energy comes from the combustion of biomass. This ranks second to hydropower as Canada’s leading source of renewable energy.

Biomass Defined

Simply put biomass energy or bioenergy is energy made by converting living organic materials or their by-products into solid, liquid or gaseous energy.

Waste Material or Planted Resource

One of the appealing features of bioenergy is that the supply is abundant and it’s renewable. The supply may originate from waste material from the forestry industry, agriculture waste such as crop residues, vegetable processing residues, manure from feed lots, municipal solid waste and wastewater treatment waste.

The other source of biomass energy is derived from land allocated for raising crops or forests for use in biofuel production. This would include dedicating acreage for corn, wheat, trees, switch grass for conversion to biofuels like ethanol. These crops can be replanted.

Secure Energy Supply That is Environmentally and Economically Sustainable

Concern has been expressed about the potential effect transferring land used for food production to biofuel production might have on food supply and food prices.

But experts in the field of bioenergy production believe all sources are worth examining and possibly developing including ethanol.

“All sources of biomass have potential for contributing to our energy mix including ethanol,” says Tim Weis, Director of Renewable Energy and Efficiency Policy with the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank specializing in renewable energy. “What matters is whether the energy is produced in a sustainable way.”

Of the two approaches using waste products to generate energy makes the most sense in that it solves two problems – the need for energy and the management of waste.

Concern also exists about the air emissions released by combustion. Burning solid waste may release quantities of dioxins and other toxic chemicals. However, the use of emission control technology may reduce the emissions to the tiniest of trace amounts.

As for emitting carbon and other climate change chemicals research by Natural Resources Canada found that burning waste products is neutral. Replanting can offset the loss of plants used to generate energy.

Transforming Biomass into Bioenergy

Technologies being studied by NRCan to transform biomass into bioenergy include:

  • Combustion – converts waste materials into steam, heat and electricity power;
  • Gasification – produces “syngas” from waste sources
  • Pyrolysis – extracts bio-oils from agriculture crop wastes
  • Fermentation – starch and cellulose rich plants are converted bio-ethanol
  • Transesterification – new and used vegetable oils; crops and residues into bio-diesel
  • Anaerobic Digestion – converts manures, food processing wastes, forestry wastes, organic municipal wastes into methane rich biogas. Planted crops such as corn, shiftgrass or trees like willows can also be used

Challenges for the Future Development of Biomass Energy

According to Weis the challenges for tapping into large biomass source for energy are:

  • Insuring biomass projects are sustainable – blunt tools don’t work
  • Developing a national policy to advance sustainable projects
  • Better educating the public about biomass energy and how it is produced.

Some successful and sustainable biomass projects that Weiss pointed to include:

  • Alberta- based Highmark Biogas plant converts chicken manure into biogas
  • Drake Valley Biomass waste wood plant
  • Ouje-Bougoumou, a Cree First Nation in Northern Quebec, community heating system.

“Many people think that bioenergy involves clear-cutting trees and planting acres of corn for ethanol,” Weis says. “But it is more than that”.

As the demand grows for renewable energy, biomass material that was once considered waste may become a key and valuable resource in providing our energy needs.