The Buzz on Biomass

By March 19, 2016 General No Comments

For many of us, living in Alberta offers a wide variety of benefits for a wide variety of reasons. Big cities, small towns, and vast displays of incredible agriculture and dense forest offer so much to be enjoyed. Anyone who’s ever driven by the subtle rolling hills of bright yellow canola in bloom knows that Alberta is more than just big oil. We are a resource rich, hard-working province on the cusp of harnessing our full resource potential – and changing our relationship with fossil fuels. Biomass generation is just one of the ways that science is changing the way we look at energy.

What is it?

Biomass is a broad term used to describe biological matter that is either living, or hasn’t yet begun to decompose. For the purposes of energy generation, it refers to vegetation such as tree limbs and chips left over from forestry applications, crops grown for biomass, or even grass clippings!

How does it work?

Biomass generated energy takes advantage of the natural carbon cycle that occurs in vegetation, and uses heat or chemicals to generate energy that can be placed on the power grid and made available for general consumption. For example, a plant absorbs carbon from our air as CO2 (carbon dioxide) using photosynthesis (energy from the sun). If the plant dies, it enters the decomposition cycle, where carbon is released back into the air as CO2 or methane. Although this is a naturally occurring process, the impact of decomposition on the environment can result in excess carbon levels when viewed on a large scale, such as in the case of plant waste generated from forestry logging applications. Materials left to decompose often produce CH4 (methane gas), which is exponentially more harmful to the greenhouse balance than CO2 alone.

Biomass energy allows producers to bypass the production of methane by collecting and returning carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 at controlled levels by chemical or thermal means. Vegetation that would otherwise be left as a fire hazard or decomposing in landfills are used to generate thermal energy which in turn creates mechanical energy, which turns turbines, and ultimately leaves as CO2 and electricity. This process reduces methane release significantly, when compared to coal and other fossil fuel methods of energy generation, as methane pockets are inherently contained within the deposits themselves. CO2 levels, though decreased, still require attentive oversight to ensure that emissions stay within safe limits and are returned to the atmosphere as a continued part of the carbon cycle.

A critical factor in understanding the benefit of these carbon lean alternatives is gained by understanding the carbon cycle and its relationship to time. Although carbon contained in fossil fuel resources has been deposited by natural means, it has done so millions of years ago, and has since been isolated from the carbon cycle balance. Releasing mass quantities of carbon through the combustion of fossil fuels delivers carbon back into the atmosphere at a rate beyond what a healthy carbon cycle can effectively manage. Despite the fact that biomass energy generation is returning carbon to the atmosphere, a well-managed biomass program will ensure that biomass used for thermal or chemical combustion returns to the atmosphere in a timeframe more in balance with when that carbon was initially absorbed into the material by photosynthesis. In the case of crop-specific biomass, carbon is being seasonally exchanged.

How does this benefit Alberta?

The obvious response is greener energy production, however, the potential for prolific benefits are numerous. Biomass generation is a self-sustaining process, using resources from within Alberta, and limiting the need for costly transportation. Alberta farmers may benefit from increased market stimulation, by increasing the demand for high energy crops such as wheat, or straw. Biomass energy reduces resource waste and landfill usage, and serves to monetize logging waste, thereby making effective use of our renewable resources. What’s more, ash from thermal combustion can be used as a nutrient rich fertilizer. The benefits are numerous, and when actively and responsibly monitored, could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

How we can support Biomass energy generation in Alberta?

Burst Energy believes in green energy alternatives and the gradual consistent increase in their use. That is why we make Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) available and customizable. Every time you purchase a credit, you support biomass and solar energy producers by receiving a portion of the electricity that they have placed onto Alberta’s energy grid.

Deana Faria
Copywriter

Sources

What is BIOMASS?. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.biomassenergycentre.org.uk/portal/page?_pageid=76,15049&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL
Why use BIOMASS?. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.biomassenergycentre.org.uk/portal/page?_pageid=76,15068&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL
What are the main sources of methane emissions?. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://whatsyourimpact.org/greenhouse-gases/methane-sources