The deregulation of the electricity generation and natural gas industries in North America has led to the introduction of a number of new technologies for distributed power generation. For example, a handful of companies are offering inexpensive, self-contained power generation units based on small gas turbine engines. These “microturbines” have an output of about 30 to 300kW. The smaller units come in a cabinet about the size of large home furnace. Possible users include small office buildings, large retail stores and fast-food restaurants.
The micro gas turbine has rapidly been attracting attention as a power source capable of generating up to about 100kW and for being smaller and lighter than other gas engines. Its compact design also makes it ideal for cogeneration systems, and its simplicity and the limited number of parts makes for easy maintenance and servicing.
Biomass is plant material, either raw or processed (fast-growing trees and grasses, agricultural residues, wood waste, paper trash and/or yard clippings).
Put another way: Biomass is stored solar energy that can be converted to electricity or fuel. Increased use of biomass for energy would lead directly to: reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced dependence on foreign oil, an improved U.S. balance of trade, an improved rural economy, and a major new American industry. More than any other energy resource, biomass is capable of simultaneously addressing the nation’s energy, environmental, and economic needs.
The U.S. has the land and agricultural infrastructure available to produce enormous quantities of biomass in a sustainable way — enough, for example, to replace half of the Nation’s gasoline usage or all of the Nation’s nuclear power without a major impact on food prices. Shifting part of the $50 billion now spent for oil imports and
other petroleum products to rural America would have a profoundly positive effect on the economy, in terms of jobs created (for production, harvesting, and use) and industrial growth (facilities for conversion into fuels and power).
Biomass use will produce economic benefits … Rural economies will grow because of the development of a local industry to convert biomass to either electricity or transportation fuel. Because biomass feedstocks are bulky and costly to transport, conversion facilities will be located where the crop is grown. That means jobs — for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that 17,000 jobs are created for every billion gallons of ethanol produced.
Farmers will see their income rise thanks to these new markets — for both agricultural wastes and crops that can be grown sustainably on marginal land. For example, the Electric Power Research Institute has estimated that producing 5 quads of electricity from biomass grown on 50 million acres would increase farm income by $12 billion annually. As new markets are created, the rural economy will become more diversified.
… energy benefits … Energy producers and consumers will have available a renewable energy option with uniquely desirable characteristics. Biomass has the greatest potential of any renewable energy option for baseload electric power production. It is also the renewable resource with the most promise for producing economically competitive liquid transportation fuels. Co-production facilities will allow the production of electricity when it is needed and ethanol when it is not — acting, in effect, as “seasonal peaking” facilities.
The Nation’s energy security will be significantly enhanced. With sustainable agricultural practices, biomass fuels could replace half or more of the Nation’s entire current level of gasoline consumption. That would keep upwards of $25 billion a year working at home that we now send abroad for imported oil.
… and environmental benefits … Agricultural land that might otherwise be converted to residential or industrial use — because we will need fewer and fewer acres to meet the market demand for food — can be used to grow biomass crops that will restore soil carbon, reduce erosion and chemical runoff, and enhance wildlife habitat. Perennial energy crops are the same kinds of crops that we now plant to protect fragile land under the Conservation Reserve Program. They can be harvested without damage to the root structure and thus continue to serve as a soil stabilizer and stream buffer and habitat for wildlife.
The use of biomass will greatly reduce the Nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels remove carbon that is stored underground and transfer it to the atmosphere. In a combustion system, biomass releases carbon dioxide as it burns, but biomass also needs CO2 to grow — thus creating a closed carbon cycle. In a gasifier-fuel cell combination, there is a net reduction of CO2. In addition, substantial quantities of carbon can be captured in the soil through biomass root structures, creating a net carbon sink.