Biomass Energy Taps the past to Fuel the Future

(condensed from Reuter, Dec 15) Household rubbish, agricultural waste and disused mine workings have not always been seen as valuable assets. But plant and animal matter, sidelined long ago by fossil fuels as a source of heat, are set to return as Britain’s most important renewable energy source in the 21st century, according to British BioGen, the UK bioenergy trade association. Meanwhile methane from landfill sites and old mine workings is also being harnessed as a fuel instead of wreaking direct damage on the climate. Methane burns like natural gas if it can be captured, but otherwise goes into the atmosphere as the most powerful of all greenhouse gases. By 2010, the European Union wants 12 percent of all energy consumed in member countries to come from renewable sources with three quarters of that seen produced by biomass. “Bioenergy” use, which includes wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, already creates five times more energy in the UK than hydroelectric stations and accounts for more than 80 percent of the nation’s renewable energy output, according to British BioGen. But in electricity generation, renewable energy contributes only three percent, with biomass a very small part of that. And by proportion of total primary energy supply, Britain lags far behind Austria, Sweden and Finland, where biomass provides between 12 and 23 percent. British Biogen said the UK has five biomass-fired power stations on stream and more in the pipeline. But the industry as a whole remains very low profile. “Bioenergy is the most important renewable energy in the UK and in Europe today and yet it is largely unknown,” British Biogen’s report said. “This has to change.” Changes may come with the release of the UK government’s “Renewables Obligation”, currently in consultation, which the industry hopes will give a big boost to biomass projects. “We are just waiting for a government policy to be implemented which levels the playing field,” said Rupert Fraser, managing director of Fibrowatt, British biomass energy specialists. Since the last programme of government support, the Non-Fossil Fuels Obligation, came to an end in 1996, Fraser said the renewable energy industry has been in limbo. Now, firms such as Fraser’s are gearing up to meet the government’s target of 10 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Sustainable wood crops, straw and poultry litter already produce electricity for Britain’s homes. First Renewables, a subsidiary of water utility Kelda Group Plc , operates the world’s first wood-chip fired gasification plant as part of its ARBRE renewable energy project. Gasification plants extract a burnable gas from wood by raising it to ultra-high temperatures and setting off a process called thermal decomposition. ARBRE plans to scale up the designs for its eight megawatt (MW) plant to create a number of 35 MW gasification units. “We believe there is scope to deliver up to 10 projects over the next decade,” Keith Pitcher, strategic development manager told Reuters. “What we are looking to do is build an effective base in the UK so that we can then replicate those projects elsewhere,” he added. Kelda also has a 31 percent stake in Fibrowatt’s parent company, Fibro Holdings. Fibrowatt runs Europe’s largest biomass power station which, at 38.5 MW, provides enough power for 70,000 homes. Fibrowatt pioneered the production of electricity from burning poultry litter, herb-production residue and racehorse bedding. The collapse of Britain’s coal mining industry has also provided another rich source of alternative fuel. The nation’s 900 abandoned coal mines have joined landfill refuse dumps as a potential source of methane gas. Methane, 21 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, currently seeps into the atmosphere unchecked. Alkane Energy Plc, which this week completed a 30 million pound placing with London financial institutions, says its three plants in central England capturing methane for gas-fired stations have the same effect as taking 100,000 cars off the country’s roads. Chief Executive David Cross said Alkane’s methods are attracting interest from overseas. “It’s an industry which Britain has a chance of getting off the ground and getting out into export markets ahead of other people,” he said. Cross said Alkane now has enough cash to build 100 more methane-capturing plants over the next five years. “We have pioneered this process in the UK and now we have raised the finance to enable us to roll out the concept on a much wider scale,” he said. Also, since so many ex-mining communities are lacking in outside investment, Cross said the plants will be good for the area too – a view shared by others in the industry. “Biomass is power for the people where the people are,” Fibrowatt’s Fraser said. “It lives up to the ultimate aim of electricity planners everywhere, which is for decentralisation, reduction in transmission costs and reintegration of energy production into the community.”

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