Biomass

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Picture taken from the videoclip “Home” by Lisa Hannigan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csaHks2gydQ

Biomass could be considered an obscure term but, actually, we all see biomass in action when looking at flames devouring a piece of wood in fireplaces or campfires!

Those flames are indeed powered by biomass energy – energy coming from living or recently living organisms and human beings have been using biomass since the time when they built a fire for the first time.

Biomass is a biological material, mostly plant-based but can refer to animal waste as well. As well as heat, it can be used to generate electricity.

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Picture taken from the Biomass Innovation Centre’s website: http://biomassinnovation.ca/biomassandbioenergy.html

To generate electricity, plant biomass material is heated in a power station. The heat generates steam from the water present in the plants, and this steam goes through a turbine that powers an electricity generator.

Animal wastes can also be used to generate heat or electricity.  In this case, the waste, with bacteria, is put in a tank called an “anaerobic digester” (without oxygen).  As the bacteria decomposes the wastes, they release biogas that can be used for heating or for releasing steam that can drive a turbine that powers a generator, as mentioned above.

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Picture taken from Bright mag’s website: http://brightmags.com/how-does-biomass-work/

Biogas is one of a bigger family called “biofuels”. It is a renewable source of energy. When there is no oxygen during bacterial digestion of biomass, the biogas produced is part methane (approximately 60%) and part carbon (approximately 40%), with very little other gases.

Biogas can be captured and sold as fuel if it is not immediately used to generate electricity and send it to the national grid.  Combined Power and Heat (CPH) plants provide heating as well as electricity to specific areas, e.g. groups of houses.

Biomass is not a fossil fuel. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas might come from biological material as well but the difference is that those materials absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere during millions of years. So, they are full of carbon and – when they are burned – they release this stored carbon as CO2 that goes in our atmosphere and increase greenhouse effect.

   On the contrary, biomass takes carbon out of the atmosphere during its life, and returns it when it is burned. It is a cycle. Theoretically, there is no more carbon added in the atmosphere, only the same amount going back and forth into it. However, the fuel use during harvesting and transportation must be taken into account when calculating such figures.  And the sustainability of transporting biomass huge distances by ship must be questioned.

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Picture taken from Wendron biomass’s website: http://wendronbiomass.co.uk/biomass.php

For biomass to remain sustainable, it must be harvested while new plants are planted; so this circular movement we already mentioned can be completed. This way, a part of the industry is releasing CO2 while another part is capturing it.

It is also possible to burn garbage to generate energy. It a free energy source and also a means to reduce the amount of trash that goes into landfills as well. This process is called Waste-to-Energy.

However, if not managed properly, there is a risk of toxic ashes coming out from the incinerators generating this energy.

Throughout the world, bio-energy remains the biggest source of renewable energy.  In Europe, there has been a remarkable growth in biomass production and use. According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), biomass could represent two-thirds of the renewable energy target in 2020. To reach that goal, biomass uses have more or less to double.

First it has to come from wastes and forestry but, in the future, most of it will have to come from agriculture.

One of biomass big advantages is that it is a renewable energy that can re-use wastes produces by forestry and farming; so it I also a good support for those industries’ workers, who can make profit out of what they would usually throw away.

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Picture by Katsiaryna Trusova

However, some concerns arise. For example, biofuel made from corn makes the corn usually used for food more expensive. It is also taking a lot of space that could be used to grow food.

The actual environmental benefits of biomass are quite unsure as well. The expansion of cropland to create more and more liquid biofuels has caused a lot of deforestation, and the carbon released during this process is way more than biomass can recycle.

That is why various environmental groups are against large-scale bioenergy production.  A recent report from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace suggested that getting electricity from burning wood may be worse than getting it from coal.

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“Deforestation at Loch Thom”, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2298274 

However, the Irish situation is peculiar. The national beef industry is planned to double in size by 2020. Because of the methane emissions of cattle and their wastes, there will be a real challenge for Ireland to reduce its agricultural carbon emissions. Digesters and production of biofuel can be part of the solution. Biomass could also be part of the solution.

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Picture by Katsiaryna Trusova

Ireland has of a lot of potential for producing biomass. Its growing potential for wood is way higher than most of other European countries because the conditions are optimal for them to thrive. Ireland was once covered with forests, but large areas were cleared in from the 16th to the 18th century, and now the number of forests it holds – 11% in the South and 4% in the North – is well below the EU norm.

For Ireland to be covered in trees again, its inhabitants would have to be incentivised to plant them.  They would also have to change the way they exploit the land as well, from a traditional custom – focused on intensive agriculture and food production – to a more tree-friendly one.

If used correctly, local production of biomass could bring great benefits to local communities across Ireland. According to SEAI (Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland), this local industry could be worth over 200 million euros in a few years. It would create jobs as well; in growing, harvesting, transporting and using the products.

In order to make this change happen, Irish government would have to study the market opportunities for bioenergy to be sure that it would achieve a great and stable economic development, providing new jobs. Advertising campaigns would be needed as well to raise awareness about this new industry value for society while making sure that the way they develop biomass production would not actually impact negatively the environment.

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Picture by Katsiaryna Trusova

In summary

BIOMASS COULD BE A SUBSTANTIAL INDIGENOUS ENERGY SOURCE FOR IRELAND BUT ONLY IN THE CONTEXT OF A STRICTLY REGULATED CIRCULAR ECONOMY.

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