Does the future of agriculture lie in biomass?

By Elizabeth Ferguson

This article is published in The Beam #5 — Subscribe now for more on the topic

Photo: Meriç Tuna

The energy markets have been disrupted. That seems like an obvious statement. I entered the conversation toward the end of the Obama administration, while working on a new campaign policy platform for Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Recently someone challenged me, while speaking on a conference panel, to consider why there are still so many opponents to transitioning to renewable energy. As the world hurtles toward climate change goals, and the companies and industries shift, there appears to be this lack of awareness about how many regions have experienced these economic impacts.

In the United States, for example, many smaller economies relied on coal and oil refineries as their primary employers, and the residents in these areas have only seen negative effects in their daily lives from the disruption. While investors and governments pat themselves on the backs for the movement toward goals of increased renewable energy, the same individuals mock rural areas for having resistance or expressing their concerns in a political fashion. There is not just a lack of empathy; there is blatant apathy.

If we look at proposed opinions about which directions the renewable energy markets will take, there are as many different viewpoints as there are experts to ask. Among numerous experts in favour of renewable energy are vastly different ideas on how to achieve the transition. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal polled several experts in the energy sector, and none could agree now that there was a disruption.

Personally, having worked with economic development in Scotland where much research and development takes place to discover new renewable sources to harness energy, the perspective which makes the most sense to me is to explore resources available which are sustainable and renewable, and create specific grids based on localised resources. This is an industry which is shifting, and along with it, bringing new technology and options which are not fully realised, so I agree with open minded experts like Ariel Cohen, a recognised authority on international security and energy policy, and the Founding Director at the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. Mr. Cohen and some of his other colleagues do not envision the future of energy just coming from only one or two sources like solar or wind, but being flexible to sources different regions have to offer, combined together in a mix of power from all available assets, from geothermal and tidal energy to biomass energy and others. However, I think this direction needs commitment, because continued reliance only on solar and wind will ensure their continued dominance and the exclusion of investment into other options.

Mr. Cohen also pointed to a variety of agricultural resources, not only for energy, but for transportation fuels. However, this seems not to engage fully the move toward emobility, which would also disrupt the transportation industries, and combine the shared goal of the energy and transportation sectors to rely on energy sources which do not produce combustion engines with carbon dioxide emissions.

What is biomass?

Biomass Energy Generation is the process where agricultural products are used directly to create electric power. This specific technology and process is critical in discussing the future abilities and resources for renewable mix in energy and power grids, and can contribute to the overall goal of moving toward entire dependence on renewable sources in rural areas relying on an agricultural basis for their economies. Currently, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, these areas have mainly been only targeted by wind and solar industries.

There are many possibilities to transform byproducts of the Biomass Energy Generation process into other bio-friendly products as part of a shift toward a bioeconomy, which include organic fertilisers, food for livestock, oils and plastics which can be produced in environmentally-friendly ways and recycled because of their organic nature.

Karsten Würth

Agricultural mix and the introduction of biomass

Traditionally, power plants were built very close to sources of power so transportation costs were low, and energy could be provided on sight when needed. However wind and solar energy cannot be produced on demand, and locations depend on geography, sometimes at great distance from where power is needed. In their abstract, this group of researchers propose that inclusion of energy and fuels from a bio-based economy would allow the on-demand and on-site of biomass and agricultural dependent energy.

Like formerly traditional sources of power, bio-based energy can be located much closer to locations demanding energy and produce the energy when required. A power plant nearby to agricultural fields could power manufacturing facilities in the same city, instead of requiring energy to be transported hundreds of miles or kilometres cross-country.

While energy from wind and solar provide a strong foundation in many regions, having energy grids which include the use of energy from a bio-based economy such as agriculture continue some of the versatility that other power supplies have been able to provide.

In agricultural areas, wind and solar energy have started to be introduced into the energy grid. However, if you look at the large commercial agricultural economic regions in the United States, biomass is vastly underused as an energy producer for agricultural industries. Here is a global economy with one of the largest, most advanced agriculture industries, but none of those resources have been tapped into contributing the drive toward renewable energy goals.

Why is agriculture an important resource of energy?

When I have conversations about the economic solutions which could be presented in the U.S. economy to bring stability through these changes instead of just disruption, most of my audience immediately realises the global implications. Solar and wind have already been used in developing economies because these resources are available globally. Not all countries have been oil or coal rich, and rely on importing these commodities to create energy from these traditional sources, which is expensive and unsustainable for poorer regions and economies of the world. However, like solar and wind, many of these countries have agriculture as an economic basis. If larger economies are able to find economic solutions combining agriculture to meet energy needs, this presents critical applications and sustainable options in other developing economies.