This is Part 5 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at biomass as an energy source.

History of Biomass Energy

For thousands of years, humans have burned biomass to produce energy. As the Western world entered the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s, biomass was abandoned in favor of more energy-intensive fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of developing countries across the globe, the burning of basic biomass, such as wood and wheat, is still widespread (Biomass Basics). As the United States looks towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, a closer, more technologically advanced utilization of biomass could be an integral part of the solution. 

Current Use of Biomass Energy

Currently, the most widely-used form of biomass is as wood, which has been a source of energy production since ancient times (Biomass Basics). As the United States attempts to transition away from fossil fuels, the use of biofuel has been heralded as an opportunity to reduce reliance on gasoline for transportation. In 2004, the United States used almost 140 billion gallons of gasoline (Biofuels for transportation). The two major types of 1st generation biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel; ethanol is an alcohol developed primarily from sugar and starch crops, such as corn. Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils and animal fats. In theory, ethanol can be used as a direct substitute for gasoline in automobiles- this might be possible in the future. However, due to ethanol’s relatively high costs, as well as its low energy density, ethanol has been much more widely used as a supplement to traditional gasoline. The majority of US automobiles today are configured to run on around 15% ethanol. In 2005, total ethanol production made up approximately 2.9% of the total gasoline pool (Biofuels for Transportation). Together, these fuels have already begun to make a significant impact on reducing fossil fuel consumption in automobiles.

Regardless of their potential, first generation biofuels have also created a significant number of problems. Perhaps most significantly, the increased use of feed stock for fuel has dramatically increased food prices in the United States. The price of corn, the primary ingredient in ethanol, has increased dramatically in the past few years, as the graphic demonstrates (High as an elephant).  As ethanol producers attempt to increase energy independence, they are invariably devastating local food markets, especially the meat industry, which uses corn as a feed stock. In the United States, and across Europe, this has initiated calls for change.

Across the globe, biomass remains a widely used resource in many developing nations. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 80 percent of the population depends on traditional biomass for cooking, as do over half of the populations of India and China (Shah). Traditional biomass is primarily fuel wood, charcoal, and animal dung. Across Europe, many nations have taken steps to introduce increased biofuel resources to replace fossil fuels. The EU has developed an ambitious goal of increasing biofuel’s share in European diesel and gasoline consumption to 10% by 2020 (Cendrowicz).

How Biomass works

At the very basic level, the burning of biomass releases solar energy that has been stored in organic matter for millions of years. The burning of wood and charcoal is relatively straight forward in this regard; biofuels can be burned in a manner very similar to fossil fuels to generate electricity through the spinning of a turbine. Biofuels are created following the processing of biomass. One of the most popular examples of a biofuel is ethanol. Ethanol is produced following the fermentation of any high-sugar biomass, such as corn or sugarcane. Following fermentation, the substance is distilled and purified. Biodiesel is another popular form of biofuel; it is produced from vegetable oils through the chemical process of transesterification (Biomass Basics).

Biomass Technologies

As greater research and development is invested into biofuel technology, second generation biofuels, also known as cellulose biofuels, have been developed with the goal of using many more of the non-food components of the crop, including husks, leaves, and stems.  Some benefits of these technologies include a more favorable GHG balance (fewer carbon emissions), no competition with food production, less use of land, and potentially higher quality fuel (Biofuels: The Next Generation). While many second generation initiatives will solve previously experienced problems, most of these technologies are still in the infant stages and prohibitively expensive. Significant research funding will be necessary before these second generation technologies can become more economically and scientifically viable. 

Significant research has also recently become focused on algae fuel, the so called third generation biofuel. As organisms, algae are considered among the most efficient organisms and, through photosynthesis, can produce approximately 30 times more energy than second generation biofuel resources. Moreover, since algae do not need to be grown, there is no need for expensive investment in land resources. Another interesting factor is that CO2 can enhance algae growth. In a future world, CO2 from factories could be sequestered and then recycled through an algae plant(Algae: The ultimate biofuel? ). While algae are more expensive than many other resources, they also produce a much more significant amount of energy. Although energy production from algae has so far been only in the laboratory, many companies have recently invested a significant amount of funding. One example is Exxon Mobil’s recent $600 million project in algae research and development.

Biomass Environmental Concerns

From an environmental perspective, biofuels substantially reduce carbon emissions and are far less polluting than traditional gasoline used in transportation. A recent study demonstrated that biodiesel reduces emissions by 78% when compared with petroleum diesel (Biofuels in the U.S. Transportation Sector). There are no significant safety issues concerning biomass consumption.

Biomass Economics

In the past few years, a significant amount of research funding has significantly decreased the costs of biofuel resources. In its current form, gasoline with 15% ethanol content is approximately the same cost as traditional gasoline (How Much Does it Cost to Use Ethanol?). However, as the percentage of ethanol is increased, costs become prohibitively expensive. In addition, first generation biofuels have demonstrated that the real cost of biofuel resources can be found outside the fuel itself. As biofuels have gained increased popularity, food prices have also risen up, devastating several different industries. When analyzing the economics of biofuels, it is important to look at the industry’s externalities.

Biomass Energy Security

Biofuels are valuable in terms of energy security, as they are able to harness domestic energy resources and reduce overall reliance on foreign oil.

Biomass Political Viability

Over the past few years, biofuels have achieved significant market penetration and have received large government subsidies. As a resource that is both environmentally friendly and can be domestically produced, biofuels have received significant tax breaks and incentives from the federal government. Following more than 30 years of subsidization, the biofuel industry has developed a powerful lobby in the federal government to protect its interests (How Much Does it Cost to Use Ethanol?).