What Your Mother Didn't Tell You About Biomass

Following is the second TreeHugger guest post by Greg Haegele, Conservation Director of the Sierra Club.

After the House of Representatives passed last week's landmark energy bill by a margin of 235 to 181, the Senate failed to achieve the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican-led filibuster on Friday. Today or tomorrow the Senate will vote on a different energy bill - one that does not include the renewable electricity standard (RES) requiring that we get 15 percent of our electricity from clean, renewable sources like wind, solar, and biomass (keep reading to find out "Ten Things Your Mother Didn't Teach You About Biomass").

I find it particularly unfortunate that the RES was dropped from the energy bill, because it came largely as a result of an alliance between one dirty energy company willing to spend whatever it takes to stop it (the Southern Company) and one senator (Pete Domenici of New Mexico) who is willing to stop progress on this issue at all costs. Despite this setback, there is considerable momentum behind passing an RES as soon as possible. It's a policy that more than half the states have enacted, is extremely popular with the American public, and enjoys majority support in both houses of Congress.After three decades of inaction, we can at last celebrate the milestone of getting the 35 mile per gallon CAFE standard passed. A year ago many of us in the environmental community thought that standard would never make it through Congress and the powerful auto industry lobby. Now we're even seeing supportive statements on CAFE from the chairmen of both Ford and GM.

Which brings us to biomass, a frequently cited renewable source of electricity.

First - a definition. Biomass: Renewable organic matter such as agricultural crops and residue, wood and wood waste, animal waste, aquatic plants and organic components of municipal and industrial wastes.

Simple enough, I suppose. I like lists, though, so I thought I'd put it all into a list of...

10 Things Your Mother Didn't Teach You About Biomass (which is pretty easy, since I'm guessing most of our moms didn't teach us anything about biomass, except that you shouldn't eat dirt.)

1. Biomass accounts for the majority of the renewable energy used in the United States. (47%, Energy Information Administration)

2. The most common method of obtaining energy from biomass is by burning it.

3. Biomass can be made into biofuels - including cellulosic ethanol, which is made of plant wastes such as corn stover (the leftover pieces in the field post-harvest) and sawdust.

4. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "agriculture and forestry residues, and in particular residues from paper mills, are the most common biomass resources used for generating electricity and power, including industrial process heat and steam, as well as for a variety of bio-based products."

5. Biomass can also be made into plastics, polymers, carpets, fabrics, detergents, fabrics, and lubricants.

6. The U.S. Department of Energy has a Biomass Program.

7. Biomass currently supplies about 3% of total U.S. energy consumption in the form of electricity, process heat, and transportation fuels.

8. Some municipal waste facilities get power from biomass by capturing the methane gas it releases as it rots.

9. In traditional power plants, biomass resources can be substituted for a portion of traditional fuels, usually coal, in a process called co-firing. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), "biomass feedstock can substitute up to 20 percent of the coal used in a boiler."

10. The Southeast has huge potential for the production of renewable electricity from biomass sources and feedstocks, which include residues from forests, primary mills, and agriculture, as well as dedicated energy crops and urban wood wastes. Fourteen southeastern states represent nearly a third of the biomass feedstock potential in the entire country (SC, VA, GA, FL, AL, MS, TN, KY, WV, AR, LA, MD, MO). See this USGS and also the ORNL sources we relied on for this information.

Bonus knowledge - #11- The Sierra Club supports biomass energy projects if they are sustainable and if they do not use federal lands as a supply. (If you want to know more about our stance on biomass, click here for some background. )

Want to learn even more? Check out the great primer on biomass energy from our friends at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

For now, you've got some good basic information to wow your friends and family with at the dinner table this holiday season. Next week we'll give you even more holiday dinner discussion fodder!

Tags: Biomass | Energy