An introduction to the bioeconomy by the BCC
Note: The content of this page is provided by the Biomass Coordinating Council of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), and reflects the views of its authors. Wiki links and formatting have been added.
For hundreds of years, humans have relied on plant and tree material for energy. Most plants store energy from the sun and release it when a plant is burned, digested, or decomposed. Plants, trees, and their products have increasingly been used to produce energy, accounting for 4% of total US energy production in 2007. Using plants and trees for energy relies on some finite resources like soil, freshwater, and minerals, so it is important to grow plants for energy is a way that is sustainable.
What is Biomass? Biomass, strictly defined, is the total mass of living material in a geographical area. Biomass has also come to mean anything that can be converted into energy, is organic and is not petroleum. It includes agricultural crops and trees, wood and wood wastes and residues, plants (terrestrial and aquatic), grasses, residues, fibers, and animal, municipal, and other waste materials. Biomass that is used to create energy is called a biomass feedstock. We are beginning to realize that biomass and food (for humans and animals) are closely intertwined.
What is Bioenergy? Biomass Energy, or “Bioenergy,” is any electricity, fuel, or heat produced from biomass. Biopower, biofuels, and bioheat are all types of bioenergy. To read more about bioenergy in the news, click here.
What is Biopower? Biomass Power, or “Biopower,” is electricity produced from biomass. Electricity can be produced in several different ways, including gasification and combustion. To read more about biopower in the news, click here.
What are Biofuels? Biomass Fuels, or “Biofuels,” are combustible substances formed from biomass that are primarily used in transportation. Ethanol, biodiesel, methanol, and butanol are common types of biofuels. There are many different ways to make biofuels, including fermentation and transesterification. To read more about biofuels in the news, click here.
What is Bioheat? Biomass Heat, or “Bioheat,” is thermal energy produced from biomass. Some technologies used to produce bioheat include combustion and combined heat and power. To read more about bioheat in the news, click here.
What are Bioproducts? Biomass Products, or “Bioproducts,” are products derived from the processes for converting biomass into power, fuels, and heat. These products encompass anything that is not glass or a mineral, including materials that can also be made from petroleum. As these bioproducts are sold, bioenergy will become cheaper to produce and more efficient. When bioenergy is produced in this way, the production facility is called a biorefinery. To read more about bioproducts in the news, click here.
- The use of bioenergy has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Burning biomass releases about the same amount of carbon dioxide as burning fossil fuels. However, the carbon dioxide that is produced by making bioenergy is canceled out by carbon dioxide absorbed by the plant when it was alive. The application of biofertilizers, mineralized compost and biochar will further increase productivity and storage of carbon in the soils, plants and trees.
- The use of biomass can reduce dependence on foreign oil because biofuels make liquid transportation fuels renewable.
- 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). Those in the biomass field are planning to use dedicated energy crops, such as fast-growing trees and grasses that can grow sustainably on marginal land that will not support food crops.
Hot Topic: Environmental and Social Impacts of Bioenergy
When we think about bioenergy, it is important to realize that the energy can come from both sustainable and unsustainable sources. Sustainable biomass is produced so that soil, water, and other natural resources are managed and maintained for future use. Biomass can be produced sustainably in many ways, including organic agriculture, polyculture, biomimicry, “harvesting” municipal solid waste, and forest thinning. The sustainability of these methods ultimately depends on the health of the natural or created ecosystem in which the biomass is produced -- including their effects on humans.
In popular agricultural practices, however, many of the methods described above are not widely used. As a result, biofuels have been suffering world-wide criticism for being unsustainable on several fronts: rising energy and food prices, distribution problems, water use, energy inefficiencies, subsidies, effluents, emissions, land use, and others. Some criticisms are off-base and some are well founded, but it is important that people recognize the inseparability of bioenergy and food.
For centuries, biomass has been used for both food and energy. Both food and energy are essential to our modern lives, and a shift in one use will impact the other. If the production of all types of biomass increases, there will be more available to eat and to supply electricity, heat, and fuel. If more people drive ethanol-fueled cars, there will be less biomass available to eat. This debate is ongoing, and it has many economic and societal implications. To read more about the food vs. fuel debate, click here.
What can I do?
To better serve the planet and all living things, we must accept the following as a personal responsibility:
- Reduce your energy consumption. For example, use energy-efficient appliances and public transportation. There are significant cost savings as well.
- Eat locally. Purchase foods that minimize transportation and processing costs, and shop at community gardens, local farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture.
- Recycle. Recognize that in the world of energy and food, there are no wastes because those resources can be used in other processes. For example, by composting inedible food products (i.e. orange rinds, food that has spoiled), the nutrients in the composted food can enrich the soil of a garden or field. This completes the loop from agriculture, through human consumption, back to agriculture.
- Eat eco-consciously. Educate yourself about animal confinements and their environmental and social impacts. Grass-fed cattle and dairy herds for instance, will greatly reduce the requirements for corn and other grains, while contributing to the health of the soil and the build up of organic matter in the soil.
- Purchase biofuels and maximize their impact. If it is available in your region, purchase biofuels. Look for biofuels that are sustainably produced and converted in a facility that uses renewable energy. Minimize your use of fuel, and buy a fuel-efficient car. Buy your electricity from renewable sources.
- Support bioenergy from non-food crops. Tell your congressmen that you support the advancing of the production of biofuels from cellulosic and woody biomass including biomass waste streams and algae.