Biomass: A viable alternative?
Biomass has been drawing attention in recent years. The depletion of fossil fuels, the growing threat of global warming and—most recently—the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have caused governments and businesses to re-examine their dependence on fossil fuels. In Canada, the federal government now allocates funds for bioenergy projects. Provincial governments, too, have started their own initiatives, including Ontario’s Green Energy Act and biomass projects in New Brunswick subsidized by the province. But is biomass a viable source of energy?
By John Gilson
Case study: Georgia
Georgia is taking great strides to develop its biomass industry. The American state is home to 24 million acres of forest land, teeming with the commercially significant Southern pine tree. Currently, the state has over $2 billion worth of active renewable energy-related projects and is projected to drive nearly $5 billion dollars into the state’s economy over the next 10 years.
“In Georgia the infrastructure for biomass already exists,” said Jill Stuckey, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Energy, who recently spoke in Toronto about biomass. “We have the timberlands and the railroads—RWE Innogy and BMC (European energy firms) will be building the largest bioenergy production facility right here in Georgia.”
Stuckey is also hopeful that large-scale biomass investments in her state will alleviate the high unemployment rate in Georgia’s timber industry—around 25% according to Stuckey.
But biomass isn’t without its problems. Burning biomass produces much of the same pollutants as burning fossil fuels, including black carbon, a powerful greenhouse gas. If harvested in a sustainable and monitored fashion, however, biomass can have a neutral-carbon affect.
“The carbon produced from burning biomass is sequestered from the atmosphere due to the re-growing of forests” said Stuckey. Forests serve as natural carbon sinks. “Also the burning of biofuels—compared to fossil fuels—doesn’t produce pollutants such as mercury and sulphur.”
Can biomass help your business?
Biomass is the second most important renewable energy source in Canada, according to Natural Resources Canada, which makes sense considering the country’s vast expanses of forest and cropland. But is biomass efficient?
According to Jill Stuckey, biomass produces 2/3 the BTU’s as coal, a major disadvantage from an energy efficiency point of view. The one thing working in the expanding industry’s favour—along with the eventual depletion of fossil fuels—are rising coal prices, says Stuckey.
Biomass may not be a viable energy alternative for every facility, but there are some cases, especially on the small scale, where it has proven to be very useful. In a closed-system facility (i.e. a facility that makes use of its own waste products to produce energy) biomass has the most potential and could help offset energy costs.
Using biological waste products as an energy source is an age old practice. An example of this is the burning of bagasse—a fibrous residue—on colonial sugarcane plantations. Modern facilities that could benefit from using biomass include pulp and paper mills, breweries and rural, agricultural facilities.
A recent example of a company using biomass energy is J.D. Irving Ltd. at its Lake Utopia paper mill in New Brunswick. With the assistance of the federal and provincial governments, J.D. Irving is installing a new biomass boiler, fuelled by wood waste from the company’s forestry operations. The project will lower the facility’s dependence on fossil fuels, lowering its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 66,000 tonnes per year.
Rural facilities could also benefit from biomass energy, with ethanol and animal manure readily available. Even in urban areas, biomass—in the form of rotting garbage and human waste—could be used as a supplemental energy source.
When it comes to renewable energy, it’s best to make use of the resources readily at your disposal: hydro in British Columbia, biomass in the Prairies, solar in Southern Ontario and wind in the Maritimes. Though still a burgeoning industry with a few gaps to fix, biomass can be an effective energy source, especially if used as a supplement. And with potential support available at the government level (e.g. Ontario’s Green Energy Act and the federal government’s Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Program), this might be a good time to look into biomass.