Biomass Energy is the non-glamorous green energy form, which is one of mankind’s biggest energy providers. Biomass Energy is not frequently used to generate electricity like Wind and Solar Energy, but is mostly used in cooking and heating particularly in developing countries. Biomass Energy has been the principal provider of energy to humans until a century ago when coal took over. Biomass Plants have not grown at the rates seen by solar and wind energy due to:
a) Lack of Fuel availability
b) Pollution caused due to bad design and construction.
Now Biomass Plants have come under fire in the USA for creating air and water pollution. WSJ has criticized Biomass Plans in the USA for pollution citing reports from the EPA. However the article fails to compare the pollution caused by Biomass Plants to the Thermal Power Plants. It also fails to mention that Coal Mining not only leads to massive pollution but causes the deaths of thousands of people every year through accidents. Coal Mining and Power Generation also leads to health hazards for hundreds of thousands due to sulfur and carbon emissions besides mercury poisoning. While WSJ says that biomass plants receive subsidies and still cause pollution, it fails to mention that Fossil Fuel receives $500 billion in global subsidies each year. While Green Energy is still in infancy and needs subsidies and support to grow, Fossil Fuel on the other hand because of its massive disadvantages needs to be penalized instead of being supported.
Pros & Cons of Biomass Energy As Compared to Coal
Biomass Energy Pros
1) Carbon Neutral- Biomass Energy results in no new net GHG emissions as it is part of the carbon cycle. Unlike coal and others forms of fossil fuel which have been buried millions of years ago and burning them adds to carbon in the atmosphere, responsible biomass energy generation results in no new carbon emissions or pollution.
2) Use of Waste - Biomass Energy is an Efficient Process which results in the use of mostly animal and crop wastes which would be converted into carbon dioxide anyway. To use it as energy before the conversion is an important use of the millions of tons of waste that is generated by human activities.
3) Continuous Source of Power – Biomass Energy can be generated almost 24×7 unlike other forms of renewable energy like wind and solar that are intermittent in nature.
4) Large variety of Feedstock – Biomass Energy can use a large variety of feedstock such as wood pellets, rice husk, bagasse etc.
5) Low Capital Investment - The capital investment required for biomass based power plants is relatively less at $1-2/watt of biomass capacity. Note wind energy is slightly higher while solar is even higher. Biomass Energy has similar capex characteristics as other forms of conventional energy like coal, gas, oil etc.
6) Distributed Nature – Biomass plants can be built in remote areas and used as a distributed form of power generation.
7) Can be built on small scale - Biomass plants can be built in 1 Mw sizes unlike other types of power which require much larges scale. For example nuclear energy requires a typical plants size of at least 500 MW to make it economical.
8) Reduces Methane which is a major GHG gas – Decomposition of organic matter releases methane. Capturing this methane yields energy while protecting the atmosphere. The animal industry and landfills produce significant amounts of methane.
9) Easy Availability – Biomass is readily available in almost all parts of the world except the desert areas where finding biomass is difficult.
10) Low Cost Resource – Biomass Energy can be produced cheaply if there is a good availability of feedstock.
Biomass Energy Cons
1) Pollution in case of Poor Technology – Biomass Energy can lead to air pollution in the form of char if the biomass is not completely combusted. This happens in the case of biomass energy being produced in rural areas through bad technology.
2) Feedstock Problems – One of the biggest drawbacks of biomass energy is the problem of feedstock. The plants are forced to run at lower utilization leading to higher costs if feedstock is not available due to some reason like a drought.
3) Good Management Required – The operations of a biomass plant requires very good management otherwise it may run into losses or even in some cases have to shut down. It requires a skill of high order to run the plant optimally and make use of alternative feedstock in case the regular one is not available.
4) Limited Potential - Biomass Energy has smaller potential than compared to other forms of energy like solar, hydro etc.
5) Controversial NIMBY - Large Biomass Plants like the one in Scotland have run into massive protests as people think it might lead to air pollution and health hazards if constructed near their homes.
Advantages of Coal
1) Abundance – Coal is located almost universally, it can be found on every continent in over 70 countries, with the biggest reserves in the USA, Russia, China and India.
2) Continuous, Predictable, Reliable Source of Power – Coal Based Energy can be generated almost 24×7 unlike other forms of renewable energy like wind and solar that are intermittent in nature.
3) Low Capital Investment - The capital investment required for Coal based Power plants is relatively less at $1-2/watt of Thermal Capacity. Note wind energy is slightly higher while Solar is even higher. Coal Mines are also quite cheap to build and mine with Open Cast Mines providing coal at a very low cost.
4) Low Cost – Coal is one of the cheapest forms of energy making it the energy of choice in developing countries like India and China. In India it is possible to get cheap coal at just $20/ton while international prices of coal range in the region of $100/ton. Note Coal based electricity can be produced at 2-4c/KwH making it the cheapest electricity source.
5) High Load Factor - Thermal Power Plants have very high load factors in excess of 80%. They can generate power almost 24/7 and only require shutdown for periodic maintenance. Coal Based Plants which have become too old or have been shutdown due to environmental concerns can still be used for backup power.
6) Large Potential compared to Oil –Coal Energy Potential is quite large compared to other Fossil Fuels like Oil and Gas. Coal Reserves globally are estimated to be around 1 trillion tons which implies that Coal can be consumed at the current rates for another 200 years.
7) Big Industrial Base - Coal Energy has been present since the start of the Industrial Revolution with the development of the Steam Engine based on Coal. The technology and industry of the Coal Industry and Thermal Power Plants is well developed and mature. This allows a rapid deployment of Coal Power in most places in the world.
8) Coal to Liquids and Coal to Gases - Coal is now being looked upon as source of Transportation Fuels as Oil becomes scarce and increasingly costly. Coal to Liquid Plants are being constructed in India and China though the Technology is quite immature and the use of the technology is still questionable on environmental grounds.
Disadvantages of Coal
1) Greenhouse Gas Emissions - One of the biggest cons of Coal Energy is that it releases Carbon Dioxide which has been sequestered for millions of years in the dead bodies of plant and animals. This transfer the Carbon from the Earth to the Environment leading to the Global Warming Effect. Global Treaties have failed in putting a Cost on this, though individual countries are tying to account for this through Carbon Taxes and Cap and Trade.
2) Coal Mining Deaths - Coal Mining has resulted in thousands of deaths each year ever since man discovered coal. Note Coal Deaths happen not only in countries which don’t have good safety regulations like China but also in developed countries like USA and New Zealand.
3) Devastation of Earth and Scenery Near Coal Mines – Open Cast Mining of Coal has resulted in destruction of the habitat and destruction of the scenery. It leads to removal of trees and pollution of air and water in areas surrounding the mines. Coal Mine Fires have burned for hundreds of year underground and make living in those areas hazardous. Those burning underground can be difficult to locate and many cannot be extinguished. Fires can cause the ground above to subside, their combustion gases are dangerous to life, and breaking out to the surface can initiate surface fires as well.
5) Emission of Harmful Substances like Sulfur Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, Mercury, Selenium, Arsenic, Acid Rain - Thermal Plants emit harmful substances such as Mercury and Sulfur Dioxide which cause health hazards among the surrounding population and Acid Rain.While modern equipment has reduced the emission of these harmful substances, it is still very harmful to humans.
Wood-fueled and other biomass fired electric generating plants are losing green credentials as they rack up citations for air and water pollution, says a Wall St. Journal report.
The Journal highlights Blue Lake Power, operated by Renewable Energy Partners, Inc. in Blue lake, CA, cited multiple times for polluting the air. The Journal report says 85 biomass-fueled power plants have been cited for air or water pollution of the 107 operating as of January 2012. The period studied covered the past five years. Some infractions were minor.
While spending millions subsidizing wood burning and other biomass plants, governmental agencies can trip over each other. The USDA and the Department of Energy both support and seed efforts to encourage renewable energy sources such as biomass.
The Department of Justice announced plans to claw back $5 million in investment made in Thompson River Power LLC, a Montana wood-fueled power plant that filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy earlier this year. It was acquired from Wayzata Investment by ecoTech Energy Group last year.
But the EPA and state agencies treat wood-fired power plants as it would those that burn fossil fuels: generators of soot, carbon dioxide and other pollution.
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