Biomass energy. That’s the one made out of cow dung, right?
Well technically, yes. That’s perhaps the part we most remember from our GCSE Science lessons. But it’s a whole lot more than that too. It’s a form of renewable energy that’s been used for many years, a fuel that’s developed from organic materials to create electricity or other forms of power.
And it’s important. Generating renewable energy from biomass has the potential to make a significant contribution to fulfilling the UK's heat and energy generation needs in the future. Indeed according to the Government's Renewable Energy Strategy, it could meet as much as a quarter of the UK's renewable energy needs by 2020.
So it’s probably worth getting to know a little bit about it. Here are a few of the important – and sometimes surprising – facts.
1. Waste rules…
Biomass energy is essentially created from any organic material that is available on a renewable basis. And much of that will be what people consider waste - from wood and crops to industrial waste. It can also include the likes of food waste, poultry litter, pellets and logs, manure, sewage waste…even potatoes! The waste is burned to make heat, or, in industrial cases, to produce steam that runs a turbine to make electricity.
2. …And it could rule forever.
That’s the brilliant thing about biomass and all other types of renewable energy. The endless resource makes it a great option as a source for energy going forward. Waste residues will always exist – particularly if we manage our crops effectively. Even better, whereas some renewables are sporadic – relying on the environment to play ball – biomass provides renewable power that is dependable and readily available.
3. It’s cheaper than you think…
The cost of creating biomass is much less than non-sustainable energy sources, and is better value than most renewable energy options as well. The fuel is cheap and accessible, and the infrastructure for generating biomass energy can be relatively cost effective. And as more and more research goes in to understanding biomass, then costs may be able to be lowered further still.
4. …And it’s low carbon too.
Even the least carbon intensive gas-fired power plants can’t compete with the significant savings provided by sustainable biomass energy generation. Which is good news for the Government, who have posed strict targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Why? Well the carbon dioxide released when burning biomass crops was extracted by the plant from the atmosphere during its lifetime. So unlike with other fuels such as coal, burning them does not add new carbon to the atmosphere
5. In fact, biomass brings of socio-economic and environmental benefits.
Biomass can be produced all over the UK (remember pretty much any organic material can be used for biomass), so more production networks will result in lower financial and environmental transport issues. And of course, using this waste for biomass energy also prevents the material ending up as landfill, which isn’t helpful for the environment. Finally, the harder we work on using sustainable types of biomass from agricultural land and woodlands, the greater the opportunity there is to maintain these areas for future use. Which is not just a great thing for the environment, but could be a great thing for farmers and rural landowners too – it provides new revenue opportunities galore.
6. Biomass is hugely important for developing countries…
It’s estimated that a whopping 2.6 billion people in developing countries already rely on biomass to meet their energy needs. In Ethiopia and Nepal for instance, the percentage of energy derived from biomass stands at more than 90%. For other countries like Kenya and Bangladesh those figures are slightly lower – between 50 and 65% - but still hugely significant in the scheme of things.
7. It’s becoming an increasingly big deal all around the world.
Overall, around 10% of the world’s primary energy is provided by biomass resources. It currently counts for around 18% of Brazil’s energy supply and 16% for India and the USA. Scandinavia has invested heavily in it too – particularly Sweden and Finland. In the UK it’s playing a more significant role as well. In 2010, around 5% of energy was generated from biomass, but that’s set to increase dramatically by 2020. If the amount of energy generated from renewables overall in the UK needs to rise to 30% by 2020, then biomass will be needed to play a big part.
8. Which is why we’re taking biomass seriously.
At E.ON we recognise that biomass can and will play a key role in meeting the UK’s energy needs. Which is why we’ve made it a commitment to be a leader in the development of biomass generation. We currently operate one of the UK’s largest dedicated biomass plants at Steven's Croft in Scotland – a £90 million investment which displaces up to 140,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, and generates enough electricity to power the equivalent of 70,000 homes. And we’ve recently opened Blackburn Meadows – a 30MW biomass plant that produces enough power for around 40,000 homes in the Sheffield area. The site, which opened last year, sits approximately 5.5 kilometres from Sheffield City Centre, and provides a great opportunity to make a contribution to the Yorkshire and Humber regions target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Projects like Steven’s Croft and Blackburn Meadows are hugely important. And we’re proud of the impact that’s already being made. But this is only the beginning. Because as we’ve seen from the facts above, biomass energy can help us create more reliable, more sustainable and more environmentally friendly energy. And that’s what we all want to strive for.