Biomass, Renewables

Department of Energy centers on biomass energy

By Lucy Chubb

Nov. 07, 2000 (Knight Ridder/Tribune)—Biomass — plant matter and its byproducts including crops, wood waste, animal manure and aquatic plants — is believed to be one of the most technologically promising renewable energy sources in the United States.

Plants and plant waste can be transformed into electricity, liquid fuels that enhance or replace gasoline, and chemicals now made from petroleum.

Scientists are working on ways to develop biofuels out of everything from wood pulp factory waste, rice plant byproducts and forest debris. Biomass fuel most familiar to Americans is ethanol, a clean gasoline supplement derived from corn.

In an effort to streamline biomass technology, the U.S. Department of Energy has added the National Bioenergy Center to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. The center will serve as a biomass clearinghouse for science and industry.

“The biomass initiative gives new meaning to the words ‘power plant,'” said U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. “Focusing our efforts to help industry through the National Bioenergy Center will create new economic opportunities for farmers, enhance U.S. energy security and help manage the impact of energy on the environment. Together we will work to accelerate development of a new industry that can provide a significant source of home-grown energy.”

“This will help put a national spotlight on what we believe is the tremendous potential that these new technologies have to offer,” said Gary Schmitz of NREL. “This is a tremendous resource that is not even being used.”

The money to fund the center comes from the DOE’s current budget. But the creation of the facility may draw much needed attention to the potential of bioenergy and thus generate more federal dollars. “Our hope is that the increased focus will result in an increase in funding over the long term,” said Schmitz.

The center will work closely with U.S. industry and universities to make the cost of bioenergy production more competitive in the global market. The center will also coordinate biomass research efforts between NREL and other national labs.

Some 350 U.S. biomass power plants generate more than 7,500 megawatts of electricity, or enough power to meet the energy needs of several million American homes. But the DOE estimates that there is enough biomass in the country to supply a much greater portion of U.S. power, bringing with it economic and environmental benefits.

Economically, biomass production represents an enormous new industry for farmers and rural communities, who collectively could reap as much as $20 billion a year in new income, according to DOE estimates. The success of bioenergy could also help offset the country’s reliance on foreign oil supplies.

Biomass emissions are significantly lower than fossil fuel emissions, according to Schmitz. The DOE calculates that by replacing petroleum products with biomass, the United States could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 100 million tons a year, the equivalent of removing 70 million cars from the road.

The center is the next step in the DOE’s efforts to implement President Clinton’s August 1999 executive order that mandates tripling the nation’s use of bioenergy and bioproducts by 2010.

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