What is Biomass Energy? Turning Waste Into Power for A Cleaner Tomorrow

Trash stinks. Nobody’s arguing. Whether you’re surviving the notoriously dumpster-free New York City summer, or you live up the wind from a country landfill in a town like Winchester, Virginia, you’re familiar with the smell of decomposing waste. The bigger the pile of waste, the bigger the stink. That’s because when bacteria breaks down solid municipal waste without oxygen, the decomposition process releases large amounts of methane gas.

Methane isn’t just bad for your nose, it’s bad for the atmosphere. During the first two decades it’s released, methane absorbs heat 84 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, contributing to the warming of the earth. So towns with malodorous landfills, like Winchester, have learned to cap their mounds to capture the unwanted methane emissions. This doesn’t just reduce odor, it also opens up new possibilities for power generation: methane, or CH4, is one of the principal components of natural gas, which means it can be burned for energy.

Communities Have Begun Burning Landfill Gas for Power

Forward thinking towns like Winchester have installed landfill gas electrical generation plants that take advantage of otherwise harmful gas emissions. These plants draw methane from wells drilled into the waste, then combust it to turn a power generation turbine. Winchester’s plant alone produces approximately 15,000 Mwh of energy each year, or enough to power 15,000 residences for one month. The cost of upgrading was paid for by the sales generated from  the plant’s carbon offset. So, without needing to worry about making a large new monetary investment, this small town was able to convert their landfill liability into power for their community.

Winchester isn’t the only town turning unwanted methane into power. Other towns, like Christianburg, VA, Brainerd, MN, and Brook, IN, have also recently installed landfill gas electrical generation facilities. They provide a viable, low cost option for mitigating the effects of living near old, decomposing landfills, making them an attractive option for communities across the country. Currently, there are more than 600 landfill energy projects that collectively generate 15 billion kWh of electricity annually. As impressive as that may seem, landfill gas plants only make up a portion of the rising trend of renewable biomass electrical generation in the U.S.

Landfill Gas is One of Many Rising Renewable Biomass Electricity Options

So why is this such a big deal? Biomass is a renewable energy source, like wind or solar, that offsets carbon emissions while using a continually refreshing source of fuel. While it isn’t discussed as often as wind or solar energy, it actually contributes as much renewable energy as all other sources combined. Landfill gas is only one of many methods of generating biomass energy. Others include burning wood grown with sustainable forestry practices, municipal solid waste and manufacturing waste. All of these sources regenerate on an ongoing basis, the emissions are cleaner than from industrial coal or petroleum plants, and they provide a sustainable solution for unwanted materials (and smells).

Biomass Generates Reliable Baseload Energy

Better yet, in contrast to other renewables, biomass provides steady, dependable energy. One of the largest impediments to the widespread implementation of other renewable energy plants like wind and solar is intermittency. Windmills only turn when the wind is blowing; solar plants only gather photons when the sun is shining. As utility scale battery storage has not yet become widely available, energy generated intermittently cannot be relied on to match demand. Solar plants are useless at night; windmills can’t power homes on still days. Biomass, however, doesn’t have these limits. Instead, it can be generated at a controlled and steady rate. This means that biomass facilities can be used to continuously meet base load energy demand while wind and solar only pitch in when they’re able to.

This predictable generation allows businesses, communities, and municipalities to depend on biomass plants as reliable sources of power. Many businesses and municipalities seek to run their operations in part or wholly on renewable energy sources due to either internal policy or regulatory pressures. Biomass offers a simple solution for these organizations. They can generate or purchase all the power they need renewably, without needing to worry about whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

Investment in Biomass Energy Helps Develop Renewables for the Future

The development of biomass energy brings us even closer to a carbon neutral future, powered by renewable resources. The steady, growing usage of organic matter combustion is helping businesses and towns across the United States meet their regulatory requirements, dispose of unwanted waste, and improve the odors of areas near landfills to create more livable environments. Communities and businesses can invest in these technologies by contracting builders for their own small biomass plant, purchasing power from a dedicated plant, or purchasing renewable energy credits.

So what does this have to do with you? Building a power plant is a little out of reach for most residential customers, but those who wish to promote the development of biomass energy still have the opportunity to do so. A percentage of the average homeowner’s energy is already being created by biomass power in many areas of the country. To increase that percentage, homeowners can purchase renewable energy credits from a third party energy supplier. These credits guarantee that power equal to the amount of energy used was generated by a renewable source, like biomass.

Third party energy suppliers help keep the energy market innovative by offering customers options like Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). These credits aid the development of renewable power sources, both directly by purchasing their energy products, and indirectly by providing a show of public will and interest. To learn how you can help invest in renewable energy like biomass electricity, contact Liberty Power today.


Photo Credit: Celestine Ngulube

Liberty Power Editorial Team
The Editorial Team at Liberty Power is a swashbuckling group of passionate and creative Energy experts bringing you the hottest topics on exciting market trends, booming products and services, and the latest news in the industry.
April 20, 2017