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Montana Green Power

Your Guide to Renewable Energy in Montana


Spotlight on Technology  Biomass
By Rod Siring
Vigilante Electric Cooperative, Inc.

Reprinted with permission.

Last month's spotlight on technology discussed distributive generation, in particular, electrical generation through the advancements of fuel cells and micro-turbines. Much time and money has been put into the technologies that will light our future, and as important as this is, we may be putting the cart before the horse. These technologies are being advanced to meet future needs because most existing methods have a negative impact on our environment. The arguments are hydro damages fish habitat, coal fired plants emit unhealthy substances into the air, and nuclear is too dangerous. Looking at these arguments, is the problem the way we generate or is it the sources of generation? With water being protected, pollution concerns of coal, and the rising costs and limited known reserves of fossil fuels, other sources of energy need to be developed. This is where research into biomass generation comes in.

Biomass, simply put, is organic matter. It begins as energy from the sun, which is stored in plants through photosynthesis. Biomass utilizes the energy content of such items as agricultural residues (e.g., bagasse from sugarcane, corn fiber, rice straw and hulls, wheat straw and nutshells); wood waste (e.g., sawdust, timber slash and mill scrap), paper trash and yard clippings in municipal waste; and energy crops (fast-growing trees like poplar and willow); and grasses, like switchgrass, elephant grass, and prairie bluestem). Plus it utilizes the energy available in the methane captured from landfills, municipal wastewater treatment plants, and manure lagoons on cattle, poultry and hog farms.

Direct combustion is the simplest and most common method of capturing the energy contained within biomass. The technology for this process is very similar to that used for coal. In fact, biomass and coal can be handled and bum in essentially the same fashion. Direct combustion of the fuel heats water to create steam. The steam turns the rotor of a turbine to produce electricity. Since coal is fossilized biomass the two can be burnt together in "co-fired" applications. One significant difference between the two is that other elements have been added to the fossilized biomass, things like sulfur and mercury that when bum are released into our atmosphere.

Gasification is the newest method to generate electricity from biomass. Instead of simply burning the fuel, gasification captures about 65 percent to 70 percent of the energy in solid fuel converting it first into combustible gases. This gas is then burned in the same fashion that natural gas and propane are burned to create electricity.

The potential for biomass generation is tremendous. The United States has the land and the agricultural infrastructure available to produce enormous quantities of biomass in a sustainable way. The potential is there to replace half of the nation’s gasoline usage or all of the nation's nuclear power without a major impact on food prices. Shifting part of the $50 billion now spent for oil imports and other petroleum products to rural America would have a profoundly positive effect on the economy, in terms of jobs and industrial growth. The Department of Agriculture has estimated that 17,000 jobs are created for every billion gallons of ethanol produced, and the Electric Power Research Institute has estimated that producing 5 quadrillion BTU's of electricity on 50 million acres of land would increase overall farm income by $12 million dollars annually. The U.S. consumes 90 quadrillion BTU's annually.

Biomass is probably the most underutilized renewable energy source in the U.S. today. Biomass currently provides about 4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. and it could easily supply 20 percent. Its environmental impact is negligible, and its use can actually benefit the environment when the methane from sewage and landfill is collected and process. There are huge economic benefits to the agriculture, and wood products industries, both of which are vital in Montana. There is not much of a downside to the development of biomass generation, and with oil and gas prices high, and the cost of natural gas doubling in the past year, biomass generation and gasification becomes viable. The critically needed next steps are continued technical progress in conversion efficiency and construction of a series of integrated demonstration facilities that will give the people working in agriculture, wood products and the investors the confidence to build this new American industry.



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