Biomass Overview

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Biomass is an organically derived energy, primarily coming from such materials as plants, agricultural crops, wood, manure, some forms of garbage and other biological matter. As a result of photosynthesis, biomass contains stored energy from the sun, and when burned, the chemical energy in biomass is released. All biomass is derived from the earth and is a renewable source of energy because we can always grow more trees and crops, and organic waste will always exist.  According to the Energy Information Administration, Biomass accounts for 48 percent of all the renewable energy used in the United States, and researchers are continuously trying to develop ways to burn more biomass and less fossil fuel. One of the major reasons for the push to use more biomass energy is because it reduces waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Biomass can be used as a solid fuel or converted into liquid or gaseous forms. It can be used to produce electric power, heat, chemicals, known as bioproducts, or transportation fuels, known as biofuel.

Biomass energy is derived from three distinct sources: wood, waste, and agriculture. Wood energy is derived both from direct use of harvested wood as a fuel and from wood waste streams. The largest source of energy from wood is pulping liquor or “black liquor,” a waste product from processes of the pulp, paper and paperboard industry.

Waste energy is the second-largest source of biomass energy. Contributing sources of waste energy include the incineration of municipal solid waste (MSW), animal waste, manufacturing waste, and the capture of landfill gas. ACUA captures all of the methane gas that is generated by its landfill.  Methane is converted to energy by generators in its landfill gas to energy facility.  Approximately 10 percent of electricity generated powers ACUA’s Solid Waste facilities, with the remaining 90 percent  being sold to the grid.

The third source of biomass energy is from agricultural products. One of the most popular forms of agriculturally derived biomass is alcohol fuel, known as ethanol. Biodiesel, another transportation fuel, can be produced from left-over food products like vegetable oils and animal fats.

ACUA uses a mix of Compressed Natural Gas and biodiesel to power its fleet of garbage and recycling trucks. When biofuel is blended with petroleum diesel, it produces a fuel that is compatible with diesel engines, displaces imported petroleum, and reduces harmful emissions like sulfur oxide, particulate matter and carbon monoxide.  Blends like B2 (2% biodiesel and 98% diesel) and B5 (5% biodiesel and 95% diesel) are becoming increasingly common as drivers become more aware of the many benefits. ACUA uses a B5 blend which is made from natural soybean oil. Higher-level biodiesel blends, such as B20, are also becoming more widely available and can qualify for tax credits under the Energy Policy Act of 1992ACUA formerly used a B20 blend in its trucks until issues arose with fuel gelling in cold temperatures, which can be a common problem in the cooler Northeast climate. 

Along with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on foreign oil, biomass energy supports U.S. agricultural and forest-product industries. The main biomass feedstocks for power are paper mill residue, lumber mill scrap, and municipal waste. For biomass fuels, the feedstocks are corn (for ethanol) and soybeans (for biodiesel), both surplus crops. In the near future agricultural residues such as corn stover (the stalks, leaves, and husks of the plant) and wheat straw will also be used. Long-term plans include growing and using dedicated energy crops, such as fast-growing trees and grasses that can grow sustainably on land that will not support intensive food crops.

As we head into the future it appears that biomass will hold true as a sustainable element in America’s renewable energy portfolio.

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