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Renewable Energy

Biomass FAQs

What is biomass? What is bioenergy?

Biomass is fuel that is developed from organic materials, a renewable and sustainable source of energy used to create electricity or other forms of power. Bioenergy – or biopower – is carbon neutral electricity generated from renewable organic waste that would otherwise be dumped in landfills, openly burned, or left as fodder for forest fires.

Biomass can be made from agricultural and forestry residues and some industrial wastes and crops grown solely for energy purposes. Biomass is an attractive fossil-fuel alternative because it is a renewable resource that is more evenly distributed over the Earth’s surface than finite fossil-fuel energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas, and may be developed using more environmentally friendly technologies.

How is biomass used?

People have used biomass for heating and cooking for thousands of years – if you have a fireplace in your house, or have ever cooked over a campfire, you have used biomass. With today’s technology, plant materials can be used to generate electricity, heat, or liquid fuels for motor vehicles that have substantially lower environmental impacts than traditional fossil fuels.

How is electricity created with biomass?

Direct combustion is the simplest and most common method of capturing the energy contained within biomass. In biomass power plants, wood waste or other waste is burned to produce steam that runs a turbine to provides electricity and heat to industries and homes. Fortunately, new technologies — including pollution controls and combustion engineering — have advanced to the point that any emissions from burning biomass are generally less than those produced when using fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, oil). ReEnergy has included these technologies in its facilities.

Direct combustion technology is very similar to that used for coal, but biomass does not have the elements like sulfur and mercury that are found in coal, and its emissions are therefore safer.

Is bioenergy renewable?

Yes. At ReEnergy, we are creating renewable energy every day. Because we will always have wood waste — either from forest residue or from other sources — we will always be able to make biomass fuel to power our renewable electricity generation facilities. Biomass that is created from other waste is renewable because we will always have waste.

Does biomass contribute to an increase in greenhouse gases?

No. As a renewable and reliable energy source, biomass can be used to generate energy on demand with virtually no net contributions to global greenhouse gas.

Burning biomass to create clean electricity releases no new carbons back into the atmosphere. Instead, it releases what would be released naturally as the organic matter decomposed.

It forms a closed cycle, too, because the carbon that is released when biomass is burned is re-absorbed by other plants in their growing cycle. When fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon that has been trapped for centuries, adding carbon into the atmosphere that had been unavailable underground.

So, by burning biomass fuels we release no more carbon dioxide than would have been produced in any case by natural processes such as crop and plant decay. And, provided our consumption of biomass does not exceed our ability to continually supply the biomass feedstock we use, we have a renewable energy source whose use does not substantially disturb the natural biochemical cycle on a human time scale.

What about over-harvesting trees and plants to make biomass fuel?

Biomass power does not pose a threat to forests, farmland or crops. It is not economically viable for a biomass power plant to clear forests or chop down trees solely for the purpose of converting the trees into biomass to make electricity. Biomass is most cost effectively made from crops specifically planted for that purpose or from residuals of paper mills, wood collected from the forest floor, tree trimmings and remainder wood from current, sustainable logging practices.

In comparison to fossil fuels, which take millions of years to be produced, plants that make up biomass are easy to grow, collect, utilize and replace quickly without depleting natural resources.

What are the benefits of using biomass for energy generation?

As with many other renewable energy sources, biomass is capable of simultaneously addressing the nation’s energy, environmental, and economic needs. Increased use of biomass for energy would lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced dependence on foreign oil, an improved U.S. balance of trade, an improved rural economy, and the creation of a major new American industry with the potential to employ tens of thousands.

What are the environmental benefits of biomass?

The use of biomass energy provides a multitude of environmental benefits. It can help mitigate climate change; reduce acid rain; prevent soil erosion and water pollution; minimize pressure on landfills; provide wildlife habitat; and help maintain forest health through better management.

The use of biomass will reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels emit vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere upon combustion, carbon that would otherwise remain trapped underground. Biomass also releases carbon dioxide as it burns, but the carbon dioxide released during combustion was absorbed during the plant’s life, and would eventually be released as the organic matter decays, to be absorbed by other plants that are in the growth stages – thus creating a closed-carbon cycle.

What are the benefits for agricultural and forest land?

The nation has many vast tracts of unused agricultural land — the byproduct of increasingly efficient agricultural techniques — that could be reclaimed to grow plants for biomass, rather than have that land be converted to residential or industrial use. These lands that grow biomass crops will restore soil carbon, reduce erosion and chemical runoff, and enhance wildlife habitat.

What impact could biomass have on our domestic energy supply?

Biomass currently provides about 4 percent of the electricity produced in the United States, and, according to biomass power associations, it could easily supply 20 percent. As a result of the available land and agricultural infrastructure this country already has, biomass could conceivably replace all of the power that nuclear plants generate and do so in a sustainable fashion.

How does biomass fit into our future?

In addition to the many environmental benefits of utilizing biomass — as opposed to fossil fuels that require sub-surface extraction — and long-term energy independence, biomass provides income that enables smaller property owners to maintain their land as forests or croplands. There are myriad quality-of-life benefits to this, including maintenance of open space and biodiversity.

By converting sustainable biomass into energy to meet society’s needs, we sustain well-paying, challenging jobs for people; protect manufacturing jobs; and ensure the long-term protection and preservation of irreplaceable forest and farmlands.

It is expensive to maintain open spaces. That is why so many landowners are selling property for development. Biomass is a much-needed source of income for landowners and an attractive vehicle for investment, with public policies that provide generous incentives for developing and using clean-fuel technologies.

Biomass provides landowners with economic incentive to manage their lands responsibly and sustainably. Because of this, use of biomass enables us to preserve our ecosystems in their natural state.

Sources: U.S. Department of Energy, Biomass Power Association