How Biomass Energy Saves You Money and Reduces Your Carbon Footprint

Posted in on Nov 29 2022,by Pamela Newenham Pamela Newenham
How Biomass Energy Saves You Money and Reduces Your Carbon Footprint

Pamela Newenham

Pamela Newenham

Marketing Manager

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Biomass Energy - An Alternative to Fossil Fuels

In the landscape of renewable energy sources, biomass stands out as a versatile and sustainable option, holding the key to unlocking the inherent energy stored within organic matter.

As the world intensifies its quest for eco-friendly alternatives, the spotlight on biomass energy continues to grow.

This article delves into the intricacies of biomass energy basics, shedding light on the potential of renewable biomass fuels and their role in fostering a more sustainable future.

Biomass, derived from living or once-living organisms, presents a unique opportunity to harness energy stored in organic materials like wood, agricultural residues, and even municipal solid waste.

Unlike finite resources, biomass offers a renewable and environmentally friendly alternative, showcasing the potential to reduce our dependence on traditional fossil fuels.

As we navigate the complexities of energy transition, understanding the fundamentals of sustainable biomass becomes crucial. From exploring the different types of biomass feedstocks to unravelling the science behind converting them into usable energy, this article aims to demystify the world of biomass energy.

Join us on this exploration as we uncover the latent power embedded in biomass and examine its role in shaping a cleaner, more sustainable energy landscape.

What is biomass energy?

The business world is becoming ever more conscious about its carbon footprint, striving to find innovative ways to lessen its negative impacts on the environment.

The most significant challenge facing businesses as they endeavour to reduce their carbon footprint is it can often be a costly exercise, and its benefits can be challenging to ascertain.

Biomass is a different matter.

Although biomass is one of many alternative energy sources with far fewer negative effects on the environment, it is not a modern energy source. People have used biomass energy since time immemorial.

Cavemen were the first to use biomass energy with the invention of wood fires to keep them warm and prepare food. Today, businesses use biomass materials to fuel electric generators and other machinery.

Biomass is organic, meaning it is made of material from living things, such as plants and animals - or typically organic wastes.

Among the most common materials used for biomass energy are wood, agricultural residues, forestry residues, industrial waste, animal waste, and solid waste/sewage. These are called biomass feedstocks.

Biomass contains energy that is first derived from the sun. Plants use chlorophyll to photosynthesize the sun's energy, and then animals, in turn, feed on these plants or feed on other animals that have eaten these plants.

The energy from these organisms can be transformed into usable energy through various means. Biomass can be burned to create heat.

That heat is then used for electricity generation or processed into advanced biofuels - either liquid fuels or gaseous fuels.

Is Biomass energy renewable energy?

Biomass energy is considered a renewable energy source due to its ability to be replenished within a relatively short time.

Unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form, biomass materials are derived from organic matter that can be grown, harvested, and replaced within a human lifetime.

One of the key advantages of biomass energy is its wide availability. Biomass feedstocks can be sourced from a variety of renewable sources including wood waste, agricultural residues, industrial waste, animal waste, and even food waste.

This diverse range of materials ensures that biomass energy can be produced in large quantities and on an ongoing basis.

Furthermore, biomass is carbon-neutral when properly managed. While burning biomass releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, the CO2 emitted is the same amount that was absorbed by the plants during their growth.

This creates a closed carbon cycle, making biomass energy a sustainable and environmentally friendly option.

Additionally, biomass energy can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When biomass is used as a substitute for fossil fuels in power generation or transportation, it can significantly lower carbon emissions. This is because biomass fuels emit less CO2 when burned compared to fossil fuels.

One of the largest sources of biomass energy in the United States is black liquor, a by-product of the pulp and paper industry. Black liquor is converted into heat and electricity through a process called black liquor recovery boilers.

Forest residues and woody biomass are also significant sources of biomass energy. These materials come from logging operations, forest thinning, and tree removal. They can be used to produce wood pellets, which are a popular form of biomass fuel.

What are biomass energy boilers?

A biomass boiler generates heat, hot water, or steam by burning wood products (e.g. wood pellets, chips, logs) or other biomass feedstocks.

Industrial biomass boilers are suitable for a wide range of applications, and you will commonly see them utilised within manufacturing, drying systems, food and drink processing, the paper industry, wood product production, and the transportation sector.

Various liquid biofuels are available to power your industrial boilers, each with its own costs, density, and moisture content. Wood Chip Boiler Heating Systems use wood chips for fuel. Meanwhile, Wood Pellet Heating Systems use pellets instead, while others use logs.

As the fuel burns, it heats water via a heat exchanger. This water then travels to the building's radiators, taps, showers, and baths. Modern biomass boilers have a storage compartment to automatically feed logs, chips, and pellets.

Biomass energy boilers are a burning topic, with the global industrial biomass boiler market expected to grow at a CAGR of around 2.8% in the forecast period of 2022-2027. With the many benefits, it is understandable why.

Advantages of Biomass Energy Boilers

1. Renewable source of energy

Gas, coal, and oil can take millions of years to form, and we are burning through this energy supply faster than we can produce it.

Oil supplies are draining, and it is predicted that we will run out of fossil fuels during this century. Renewable energy production is the only solution.

As long as plants are growing on this planet, there will always be fuel for a biomass boiler. That said, the use of biomass for energy is a no-brainer to help boost electricity production and offset the negative impacts of climate change.

2. Carbon Neutrality

If you are trying to lower your business's carbon footprint, installing a biomass boiler could be an excellent way to do just that. Biomass stands out as a carbon-neutral energy source.

When biomass fuels undergo combustion in boilers, they release negative emissions such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

However, the carbon dioxide emitted is equivalent to what the plants absorbed during their growth phase, rendering it a closed carbon cycle (i.e. no additional carbon emissions are added to the atmosphere - this is also called being carbon neutral).

By harnessing a biomass energy supply, businesses can significantly reduce their reliance on traditional fossil fuels and maintain carbon neutrality while doing so.

3. Highly efficient

A biomass boiler is an incredibly efficient boiler for heating systems and, when correctly installed and maintained, can have an efficiency of around 80-90%, similar to gas and oil boilers. They also have a better climate impact given that biomass boilers produce less greenhouse gases i.e. less negative emissions.

4. Lower costs per kWh

Aside from the positive climate impact, one of the most obvious advantages of implementing a biomass boiler is the potential reduction in fuel costs. Due to the ability to be able to use a wide variety of materials as a biomass energy source, prices for the fuel itself can be much lower.

The largest source of biomass energy source is wood, in the form of wood waste, pellets or wood chips, and 'energy dense' straw & miscanthus.

Other common sources of biomass energy include forest residues, food waste, agricultural residues, food crops, and municipal wastes.

5. Greater control over your business heating costs

If your business produces solid waste - whether it be wood, crop stalks, or garbage - then you may find that you can save money on having debris removed from the premises whilst also using the waste to heat/dry/power your factory.

6. Build a greener brand

Not only can you do your part for the planet, but by promoting sustainable business methods, you can also improve your brand image. Modern customers have developed a green stance regarding the companies they engage with.

If your business can demonstrate your green energy credentials, your brand may appeal to this growing and highly influential demographic. Many companies have been endorsed by sustainability-focused groups and trade shows, opening a broader client base to their business.

When to use Biomass as a Decarbonisation Technology

When considering using biomass as a decarbonisation technology, several key factors can make it a viable energy resource.

Firstly, biomass becomes particularly attractive when there's a substantial demand for steam or high-temperature heat. This is because biomass, through its combustion process, can efficiently generate the necessary heat levels required for various industrial processes or space heating needs.

The availability of organic waste serves as another critical factor. Biomass can be derived from many sources such as food crops, woody plants, organic materials, and various waste products.

Instead of letting these organic materials decompose and release greenhouse gas emissions like methane into the atmosphere, they can be repurposed for combustion. This not only provides a sustainable disposal method for these organic wastes but also contributes to generating energy in an environmentally friendly manner.

Local availability and reliability of biomass sources are equally important. For biomass to be a feasible option, it's essential to have consistent and dependable sources nearby.

Relying on distant sources with a complete absence of local supply might introduce logistical challenges and increase transportation costs.

Speaking of logistics and infrastructure, a location that offers easy access for additional fuel trucks can streamline the supply chain, ensuring uninterrupted operations. Similarly, having enough space available is essential for storing biomass reserves and facilitating efficient loading and unloading processes.

Lastly, from an economic perspective, the cost-effectiveness of biomass for energy compared to traditional fuel sources is a decisive factor. As advancements in biomass technology continue and production scales increase, the cost of generating energy from biomass has become increasingly competitive.

When the cost of biomass energy production is lower than conventional fuel sources, it not only provides financial incentives but also positions biomass as a more sustainable and renewable energy source.

When not to use Biomass

There are specific situations where biomass might not be the most suitable option.

For example, if your heat requirements remain consistently low, such as HVAC loads below 100 degrees Celsius, biomass might prove inefficient for such applications.

Biomass systems excel at generating high-temperature heat, making them less ideal for tasks that demand lower temperatures.

Additionally, integrating biomass necessitates significant operational changes and investments. If your facility isn't equipped to handle a substantial new asset that demands considerable operational input, it might be challenging to seamlessly incorporate biomass technology.

Space constraints on-site further complicate matters. Biomass systems, including storage and processing units, can require substantial physical space. If your site lacks the necessary area, accommodating such systems becomes impractical.

Logistical considerations play a pivotal role. If bringing in additional traffic to your facility poses challenges due to infrastructure limitations or regulatory constraints, biomass delivery and management might become cumbersome.

Lastly, when energy costs are already high or unpredictable, transitioning to biomass might not offer the anticipated economic benefits.

In such cases, it's essential to weigh the pros and cons carefully and explore alternative renewable resources which may be better suited to your specific needs.

For example, solar energy could be a viable alternative to biomass resources for your facility. Solar energy typically involves establishing a solar farm that would also enable your business to escape the carbon cycle by cutting your dependence on fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions.

Less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a win, regardless of however we can achieve it.

Top Fuel Considerations

Although fuel should be the starting point for installing or retrofitting a biomass boiler, unfortunately, it often lacks consideration.

Biomass fuels should be analysed throughout the entire lifecycle of a boiler: from the design and specification phase, throughout installation and commissioning, to regular operations, optimisation, and maintenance.

Fuel availability

Fuel availability is a crucial consideration when it comes to biomass boilers. To ensure the smooth operation of a biomass system, it is essential to determine whether there is sufficient good quality fuel available for multi-year contract terms that match the boiler specification.

Obtaining an adequate and reliable supply of fuel is key to the long-term viability of a biomass energy project.

Municipal wastes, wood waste, industrial wastes, solid waste, animal wastes, food waste, and forest residues are all potential sources of biomass energy.

Fuel quality

Fuel quality is a critical factor to consider when utilising biomass energy. It is necessary to ensure that the fuel supply meets the specific requirements of the boiler, such as moisture content, chip size, and particle size distribution.

The moisture content of the fuel must fall within a certain range; if it is too dry, it can cause the boiler to operate at excessively high temperatures.

On the other hand, if the fuel is too wet, it can lead to combustion issues and result in high greenhouse gas emissions.

Why is Fuel Analysis Important for Biomass Boiler Operators?

Fuel specification, fuel classification, and the ongoing study of fuel are essential for optimising efficiencies and reducing operational costs of biomass boilers.

Before upgrading boiler equipment or designing a new boiler system, it is just as important to look at fuel as it is to look at the equipment.

When it comes to biomass boilers, one of the biggest mistakes that operators make is to solely focus on the efficient running of the equipment without emphasising the fuel itself; this is because it is so often assumed that the fuel stays the same over time.

This could lead to a variety of mechanical, performance, and/or maintenance issues over time.

Although a fuel analysis is usually done when a boiler is installed or a new fuel is chosen, there is a risk of fuel drift which can impact the operation and efficiency of the boiler(s).

It is important to understand that drifting from operations isn't always caused by operational issues. It could be caused by not managing and understanding the fuel(s).

A fuel analysis allows for treating the root cause of a problem and not just the symptom. Download this report to learn how to optimise biomass boiler performance with continuous fuel analysis.

Case Study: Fine-tuned existing Biomass Boilers at a Brazilian soybean plant

By making minor adjustments to the boilers and without any plant downtime required, CoolPlanet managed to save the facility R$4.3 million (US$770,000)/year on fuel.

The facility is one of the largest of its kind in the world and its four boilers have a combined output of 105 metric tons per hour.

Three different types of fuel are burned, amounting to an annual total fuel cost of R$18 million (US$3.24 million) and an average steam cost of R$46 (US$7.3 million) per metric ton – this was before the optimisation of the system.

By collecting historical data as well as going to the site doing in-depth testing and measurement, and interacting with the boiler operators and maintainers, CoolPlanet was able to identify various operational challenges and ways to optimise the overall system operation.

The CoolPlanet team was led by Jason Garner, who boasts more than two decades' of specialised experience in working with biomass boilers (which includes combustion system and boiler design, installation, commissioning, and operation).

For this project, Garner and his team opted for low-impact changes that resulted in the most benefit. Importantly, the modifications didn’t require the shutting down of the plant; it could be implemented with little disturbance to operations.

With the help of CoolPlanetOS [a powerful decarbonisation management system that enables your organisation to measure, manage and reduce carbon emissions at scale, CoolPlanet focused on improving the envelope of each boiler.

Built with the company’s deep engineering experience in retrofitting manufacturing and industrial process sites, CoolPlanetOS offers the industry’s first Software as a service (SaaS)-based solution for real-time monitoring and analysis of energy consumption, providing insights into which machinery, process, product line, or site is currently not performing as expected.

Data is only one part – the other is action. As such, the CoolPlanet team took all the data they gathered, consolidated it with other operating parameters, and turned this into actionable improvements.

Improving the operations of the plant also improved the performance of the facility. Thanks to the modifications made and new data being provided, the lives of the operators are easier.

The total annual fuel cost was R$18 million (US$3.24 million) previously but thanks to the modifications made by CoolPlanet, this cost came down to R$13.7 million (US$2.47 million), achieving an annual saving of R$4.3 million (US$770,000).

The average steam cost also improved. Previously, this cost was estimated at R$46 (US$7.63) per metric ton, a number that was improved to R$40 (US$6.63) tons, saving R$6 (US$1) per metric ton.

In terms of capital expenditure (CAPEX), the payback of the improvements made by CoolPlanet is estimated at only two years. Read the full story of how biomass boilers achieved these results.

How can CoolPlanet help with Biomass?

As energy demand rises, energy from biomass is increasingly prominent in the global energy system.

Modern biomass energy helps to avoid many environmental consequences of high carbon emissions and significantly reduces emissions - especially in difficult-to-decarbonise sectors like aviation, transport, and manufacturing.

CoolPlanet has extensive experience in biomass boilers and combustion systems more generally. It is essential to engage a biomass professional with credible, relevant expertise and experience early on in the design stage to ensure the front-end loading of the project design decisions.

Shifting knowledge to the front end exponentially affects the cost of construction and overall asset life cycle costs.

With the engagement of an expert, classifying the fuel can be done optimally and better decisions made to reduce both the installation and operation costs of the system.

Take the first steps towards biomass boiler adoption

The potential of biomass energy to reshape our energy landscape cannot be overstated.

As we explore the diverse applications of renewable biomass fuels, including those derived from crop waste, and witness the growth of biomass plants, it's clear that sustainable sources offer a tangible path towards a cleaner, greener future.

The inherent energy within organic matter invites us to reimagine our approach to power generation, mitigating environmental impact and advancing towards a more sustainable coexistence with our planet.

As we conclude, we invite you to delve deeper into the world of biomass energy by downloading our comprehensive report on optimising biomass boiler performance through continuous fuel analysis.

How can we collectively harness the full potential of biomass energy to meet the growing demands for sustainable power? Download the report and join us in unlocking the answers.