Biomass

Biomass

"Biomass" means any plant-derived organic matter available on a renewable basis, including dedicated energy crops and trees, agricultural food and feed crops, agricultural crop wastes and residues, wood wastes and residues, aquatic plants, animal wastes, municipal wastes, and other waste materials.

Bioenergy technologies use renewable biomass resources to produce an array of energy related products including electricity, liquid, solid, and gas fuels, heat, chemicals, and other materials. Bioenergy ranks second in renewable primary energy production and accounts for three percent of the primary energy production in the United States.

Biomass is an attractive petroleum alternative because it’s renewable, available anywhere in the world, and can be developed using environmentally friendly technologies and processes.

How it Works

Biomass is essentially an indirect form of solar energy. The carbohydrates and complex compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that result from photosynthesis turn back into carbon dioxide and water when they are burned. As long as the biomass used remains equal to the biomass grown, it is a sustainable and carbon neutral energy source.

Biomass is growing cleaner and more easily managed. Solid wastes are being converted to liquid and to gas fuels instead of being burned, and new “energy crops,” such as switchgrass and willow trees, are being grown for energy generation in order to move away from using food crops for energy generation, which drives food prices up and harms poorer regions disproportionately by directing resources to energy production rather than food production.

Biomass Energy Sources include:

  • Energy crops: Trees and grasses - especially native species - are optimal, but corn has been favored and is most well-known.
  • Trees: Some trees regrow rapidly after being cut back, and can continue to do so for as many as 30 years before the need to be replanted.
  • Grasses: Perennial grasses that prevent erosion and do well in low nutrient soil, such as switchgrass.
  • Food crops: Corn, sorghum, soybeans, and sunflowers are common sources for fuel. But these require annual replanting, maintenance, fertilizers, and energy and are not an optimally sustainable source of energy.
  • Algae: These tiny aquatic plants have the potential to grow extremely fast in the hot, shallow, saline water found in some lakes in the desert Southwest. Forms of algae thrive on carbon dioxide, and emissions from power plants have been used to feed the plants, which are then used in biofuels.
  • Biomass Residues: Basically, leftovers. Industries like forestry and agriculture produce plant and animal wastes in large quantities. Some wastes must be left behind to replenish soil with necessary nutrients, but too much waste left behind can lead to other problems, like runoff that has damaged rivers, streams, and the Gulf.
  • Human Wastes: Our own human waste - garbage and sewage - is also a source for biomass energy. We generate biomass wastes in many forms:
    • Organic and biodegradable garbage (paper, food, leather, yard waste, woody waste from packaging and cardboard)
    • Landfill gases given off by decomposition
    • Sewage, in the form of methane greenhouse gas that is captured and burned for heat and power by sewage treatment plants.

Biomass in Texas

Biomass is catching on throughout the U.S. It already producing 1.2% of all our electricity and about 2% of the liquid fuel used in cars and trucks. But with the volume of waste we produce, we could power much, much more.

Biomass production is a significant industry in Texas, producing nearly 3 million tons of biomass annually and co-producing 462 gigawatt hours of electricity.

  • Much of the production involves corn and sorghum-based ethanol, leaving us with room to innovate in the planting of energy crops.

Texas’s strong agricultural industry combined with federal research facilities and strong biotech sector position it to be a national leader in biomass innovation.

  • Major facilities like the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, the University of Texas Biotechnology Institute along with state university research and large agri-business provides the knowledge, R&D, and workforce required to spin out promising new technologies.

Texas is rich in raw biomass material from farming, fishing, aquaculture, and forestry.

  • Biomass energy would be a sustainable, renewable, and plentiful source of homegrown energy.

Environmental concerns over the health of Texas’s air quality and the Gulf Coast and its watershed can be addressed in part with biomass adoption.

Increasing biomass energy can produce dramatic environmental benefits:

  • It reduces air pollution through carbon neutrality,
  • Decreases water pollution, with fewer fertilizers and pesticides – and energy crops planted in environmental buffers on shorelines decrease agricultural runoff.
  • Improved soil quality with plants that don’t draw nutrients from the soil
  • Reduced landfill waste
  • Reducing global warming 

Texas has the potential to produce a significant amount of biomass for conversion to energy without conflicting with food or feed production. For example, biomass could provide approximately 15 percent of Texas’ liquid fuel needs. Dedicated energy crops such as energy cane, grasses, and sorghums could support the operation of up to 15 cellulosic conversion plants within ten years. Residues such as crop residues, wood wastes, and municipal solid waste can also provide a large amount of biomass for energy production.

Texas has significant potential for diverse biomass production and bioenergy. Forest resources, municipal solid waste; construction residue; dedicated energy crops; crop residue; oilseed crops; grain; and algae are important potential sources of energy. This biomass can be converted into Generation II biofuels ranging from ethanol to green gasoline and diesel. However, Texas would require significant increases in grain production and/or importation to experience increased grain-based ethanol production.

Over 19 million tons of biomass could be used for biofuels production in Texas each year. Some of this might be used for thermal conversion for process heat or electricity production but it would be difficult for a power producer to compete with ethanol production for the feedstock. Feedlot biomass, forest/wood byproducts, poultry litter, cotton gin trash, and sugar cane bagasse are examples of biomass that are more appropriate for the thermal route.

Biomass represents a significant energy resource in East Texas and is primarily an unutilized resource. The demand for lower value woody biomass is currently low. House Bill 1090, Agricultural Biomass and Landfill Diversion Incentive Program, was passed in 2007 to encourage the construction of facilities that generate electrical energy using logging residue and urban woody biomass. Utilizing these resources for an array of bioenergy and bio-based products has several advantages including: year-round supply; complementary with existing sustainable forest management practices; and low energy and water input.

Municipal Solid Waste is an excellent source of biomass for energy recovery. In 2006, total waste disposal in Texas amounted to 30.45 million tons, an energy resource of approximately 365 trillion BTUs per year, or the equivalent of 6.3 million barrels of oil.

Algae have great potential as a feedstock for biofuels and bioproducts because they can regenerate in 5 to 72 hours. The potential for algae biodiesel production would be close to ten times the potential of palm oil and 100 times that of soy oil, the two most commonly used feedstocks for biodiesel production today.

Challenges for researchers, producers, equipment manufacturers, and end-users will be to develop production systems that are sustainable and efficient. A critical element in the success of biofuels production will be the linkage between biomass feedstock development, production, harvesting, transporting, storing, and processing into biofuels/bioproducts and/or energy. A key issue in the development of biorefineries will be the ability to continuously deliver biomass to the facility, which is significantly different than other agricultural commodities that tend to be seasonal in nature.

Water is potentially one of the more limiting inputs of biomass energy production. Other infrastructure considerations for biomass include: availability of land for dedicated energy crops; and production, harvest, storage and transport systems. The preferred areas will be those areas, such as those along the Gulf Coast, that have adequate rainfall, high quality available land, a long growing season, ability to provide just-in-time delivery, and strong producer networks.

Biofuel production can be an important force in the economy. The establishment of bioenergy production capability in Texas would have significant positive economic and energy implications. The utilization of biomass can provide rural development opportunities due to the numerous small facilities that would be required.

 

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