Energy production using biomass is a growing technology. Biomass is defined as any biological material that is found in the products, wastes, and residues from agriculture and related industries as well as industrial and municipal waste. The biomass is the biodegradable components of these materials.
Energy crops are grown for the sole purpose of energy generation. Rather than using just a waste from a process, the product of agriculture, the specific parts of the plant, is what is used to create energy.
There are several common types of plants used for energy production. They include cereals, sugar beets, oil crops, maize, grass, miscanthus, reed canary grass, and short rotation coppice. By products from agriculture that are often used for energy include manure and straw.
Biomass technology can be used for energy production in all three areas: transportation, heat, and electricity. Certain crops are more efficient for one area and are commonly used that way. For example, miscanthus is usually used for heat and electricity production while sugar beets are usually used for transportation fuels.
The UK, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Spain, and Italy have the largest area of energy crops being grown. Sweden specializes in willow and reed canary grass while Germany grows mostly miscanthus and willow. Finland grows a lot of reed canary grass as well and Spain and Italy grow a lot of Poplar for energy production use. Germany also commonly uses biowastes and municipal wastes to produce biogas, as does Austria, Denmark, and Italy.
Without incentives, biomass energy production cannot be a profitable process. Biomass power plants cost more than fossil fuel power plants. Every country has their own way of subsidizing and promoting the production and use of biomass energies. Sweden taxes the emission of carbon dioxide from the combustion of any fossil fuels while emission from biomass fuels is exempt from the tax. There are also subsidies to build CHP-plants (Combined – Heat and Power) that use biofuels.
There are drawbacks to the use of biofuels including the competition for land for growing food, the cost and impact of transportation, which often uses fossil fuels, and the need for crop rotation to maintain soil nutrients. All of these issues can be overcome with creative thinking and a push for progress in the field of biofuels.
“Energy from field energy crops – a handbook for energy producers.” Intelligent Energy: Europe, 2009. Web. 13 May 2012. <www.encrop.net>.
Routes of agricultural crops to bioenergy. 2009. Jyväskylä Innovation Oy, Jyväskylä. Web. 17 May 2012. <www.encrop.net>.
During our trip we saw examples of several kinds of energy crops in action including corn stover, sugar beets, grasses, woody biomass, and a by product of woody biomass, black liquor.
We saw corn stover being used at Baur farm and UTS. Corn stover consists of the entire corn stalk which is a bit of a different perspective than in the U.S. Most often the kernels are used while the rest of the plant is discarded in the U.S. Two different processes are used as well. Corn stover is used for anaerobic digestion while kernels produce ethanol. Using the whole plant allows for the utilization of all of the available energy in the plant. Corn has large subsidies in the U.S. while in Germany it is subsidized about the same amount as most other energy crops. It is then up to the companies to decide what will be most profitable and most easily accessed for them and prevents over production of one crop which can starve the land of nutrients.
When we visited ROPA, we got to see the harvesting side of energy crops. The equipment there was designed to harvest sugar beets. They are becoming a widely used energy crop around the world. This and for other reasons is why ROPA has decided to make specialized equipment. Sugar beets are also very durable and can be harvested easily by a machine since they do not require a careful hand.
There were a couple plants that used various grasses as energy crops such as UTS and the Munich Zoo. Certain grasses can be more productive, but wild grasses are a good feedstock since they will often grow without much or any help. UTS gathered the grass clippings from the nearby airport that would have been thrown away otherwise. The same was true about the zoo.
In Sweden, we saw several examples of combustion of woody biomass as well as gasification of black liquor, a by product of paper production. Black liquor was used at ETC for the main fuel. Black liquor comes from woody biomass as a by product in paper manufacturing and is made up of almost pure lignin. It has a great energy density and is therefore a great source of energy, especially since it is a waste from paper mills. Several plants also used pure woody biomass, but could also work closely with paper mills by taking the logs, residues, branches, and tree tops that cannot be used for paper production.
We saw a large variety of energy crops being used during the trip. It is beneficial to a country to diversify to prevent nutrient depletion and resource depletion and to use the resources readily available.