About Emily Folk

Emily Folk is freelance writer and blogger on topics of renewable energy, environment and conservation. You may read more of her work on http://www.conservationfolks.com. Follow her on Twitter @EmilySFolk

Zero-Waste Trends in the United States

Most people don’t see what happens to their trash. They throw it in a black plastic bag, toss the bag into a dumpster and the trash man collects it once a week and makes it disappear. Magic, right?

Wrong.

Most of our trash ends up in a landfill where it is buried and mixed in with decades-worth of junk. Certain items will break down over time while others are essentially just stored there, in a graveyard of forgotten items and a mountain of garbage.

In the year since China banned the import of other countries’ plastic recyclables, the global recycling industry has been in flux, resulting in plastics ending up in landfills, incinerators and littering the environment. This is causing countries and citizens across the globe to reexamine their recycling systems and highlights the need for zero waste practices.

Zero waste is the concept of eliminating the amount of trash thrown away by only purchasing reusable items. That’s a significant shift from the 4.4 pounds of trash that the average American tosses every day. But certain trends are helping make the idea of zero waste a reality in the United States. Let us have a look:

Replace Single-Use Packaging With Reusable Materials

Way too many plastic items that we use every day are meant to be used only once. And the amount of packaging that goes into shipping one box, that will simply get tossed in the garbage after the parcel is unwrapped, is astounding. In fact, 40 percent of plastic produced is packaging, which is thrown away after it arrives at your doorstep.

Plastic bag and straw bans are on the rise across the globe. Consumers are becoming more conscious of how their use of these items contributes to the trash crisis. Recent data shows that customers are more likely to buy products from brands that promote sustainable business practices.

Reduce Energy Waste By Choosing Renewable Options

Many industries are opting to reduce energy waste by pursuing renewable energy sources. U.S. manufacturers account for 30 percent of the nation’s energy consumption, which means manufacturers must take the lead in reducing fossil fuel consumption and energy waste.

The U.S. is the leader in energy waste. Americans spend $350 billion on energy costs each year, yet three-quarters of that energy goes to waste. One way to reduce the burden on our power grid — and our wallets — from all that lost energy is by switching to renewable sources.

Air compressors are vital to the upkeep of a successful farm, and many producers in the agricultural sector are also reducing waste by switching to high-powered air compressors that, when properly maintained, can reduce energy usage and cut costs.

Eliminate Food Waste

About 94 percent of food waste ends up in landfills, which contribute to methane gas emissions. Reducing food waste not only helps the environment, but it also decreases the amount you have to spend at the grocery store. It also helps to conserve energy, as less power is needed to grow and produce food if less is wasted.

Individual consumers can help eliminate food waste by freezing leftovers to preserve them and composting uneaten food, as opposed to tossing in the trash.

Restaurants can use these tactics and others to cut down on food waste, such as donating leftovers and properly training staff to get on board with waste reduction. They can also hire auditors to help them identify ways to reduce waste and streamline business practices.

Never Too Late to Make a Change

Though the statistics may seem disheartening, the reality is that it’s never too late to make a change in your individual or business habits to help cut down on waste and work toward the goal of accomplishing zero waste. Following these trends and implementing others is just one way to do your part to eliminate waste and protect the environment.

Biomethane from Food Waste: A Window of Opportunity

food-waste-behaviorFor most of the world, reusing our food waste is limited to a compost pile and a home garden. While this isn’t a bad thing – it can be a great way to provide natural fertilizer for our home-grown produce and flower beds – it is fairly limited in its execution. Biomethane from food waste is an interesting idea which can be implemented in communities notorious for generating food wastes on a massive scale. Infact, the European Union is looking for a new way to reuse the millions of tons of food waste that are produced ever year in its member countries – and biomethane could be the way to go.

Bin2Grid

The Bin2Grid project is designed to make use of the 88 million tons of food waste that are produced in the European Union every year. For the past two years, the program has focused on collecting the food waste and unwanted or unsold produce, and converting it, first to biogas and then later to biomethane. This biomethane was used to supply fueling stations in the program’s pilot cities – Paris, Malaga, Zagreb and Skopje.

Biomethane could potentially replace fossil fuels, but how viable is it when so many people still have cars that run on gasoline?

The Benefits of Biomethane

Harvesting fossil fuels is naturally detrimental to the environment. The crude oil needs to be pulled from the earth, transported and processed before it can be used.  It is a finite resource and experts estimate that we will exhaust all of our oil, gas and coal deposits by 2088.

Biomethane, on the other hand, is a sustainable and renewable resource – there is a nearly endless supply of food waste across the globe and by converting it to biomethane, we could potentially eliminate our dependence on our ever-shrinking supply of fossil fuels. Some companies, like ABP Food Group, even have anaerobic digestion facilities to convert waste into heat, power and biomethane.

Neutral Waste

While it is true that biomethane still releases CO2 into the atmosphere while burned, it is a neutral kind of waste. Just hear us out. The biggest difference between burning fossil fuels and burning biomethane is that the CO2 that was trapped in fossil fuels was trapped there millions of years ago.  The CO2 in biomethane is just the CO2 that was trapped while the plants that make up the fuel were alive.

Biofuel in all its forms has a bit of a negative reputation – namely, farmers deforesting areas and removing trees that store and convert CO2 in favor of planting crops specifically for conversion into biofuel or biomethane. This is one way that anti-biofuel and pro-fossil fuel lobbyists argue against the implementation of these sort of biomethane projects – but they couldn’t be more wrong, especially with the use of food waste for conversion into useful and clean energy.

Using biogas is a great way to reduce your fuel costs as well as reuse materials that would otherwise be wasted or introduced into the environment. Upgrading biogas into biomethane isn’t possible at home at this point, but it could be in the future.

If the test cities in the European Union prove successful, biomethane made from food wastes could potentially change the way we think of fuel sources.  It could also provide alternative fuel sources for areas where fossil fuels are too expensive or unavailable. We’ve got our fingers crossed that it works out well – if for no other reason that it could help us get away from our dependence on finite fossil fuel resources.

Benefits of Biodegradable Packaging for Businesses

Consumers want companies to reflect their values. They’re far more likely to purchase from a business with an identity, whether it manifests in charitable efforts or eco-friendly practices. As a greater number of people show interest in green living, biodegradable packaging presents an opportunity for growth.

That said, the virtues of biodegradable packaging extend beyond an improved public image. While business owners enjoy the superficial advantages of this transition, they often find it’s only a fraction of what the shift entails. Through switching to biodegradable plastics, they see considerable changes elsewhere.

bioplastics

In this article, we’ll detail five of those changes, exploring the subject to lend business owners a better understanding of biodegradable packaging within their operation. As we touch on the benefits, it’ll become clear that eco-friendly materials aren’t only better for the environment, but better for a company’s bottom line.

Free of Toxins & Allergens

Biodegradable packaging options are still somewhat limited, but most of the available materials are non-toxic and allergy-free. This is an essential consideration to consumers who care about the products they’re purchasing and the composition of their packaging. If either is potentially harmful, it hurts a business.

An informed consumer will almost invariably choose products packaged with bioplastic over traditional alternatives, aware of the implications of their purchase. Considering the negative health effects of phthalates — a common chemical in plastic packaging — business owners should be aware of the implications as well.

Require Fewer Resources

Biodegradable packaging has the potential to reduce water usage, solid waste, electricity and emissions. This is beneficial for the environment, of course, but it also lowers expenses associated with the packaging process. Over time, the accumulated savings prove well worth the cost of the transition.

If a company were to replace their standard packaging materials with bioplastic, they would enjoy weight savings on par with regular plastic. Research shows plastic packaging enables weight savings of over 78 percent compared to alternative materials, a notable statistic for business owners looking to convert.

Lower Production Costs

Most biodegradable materials follow the three basic R’s of sustainability.

  1. A business can reduce them, using fewer resources to create thinner and tougher materials which do the same job.
  2. A business can reuse them, taking advantage of materials with special coating which improves their durability.
  3. A business can recycle them, diverting refuse from landfills as they minimize the costs of new materials.

A business owner who invests in biodegradable packaging can cut costs by a significant margin, using fewer resources, reusing their inventory and purchasing inexpensive recycled materials. In doing so, they’ll see reduced packaging expenses over time, and more freely allocate their money elsewhere.

Reduced Footprint

A business owner has financial goals they have to meet, but they have environmental goals as well. Every professional in an upper-management position has a responsibility to ensure their company meets high standards of environmental compliance, and biodegradable packaging can help — outside a legal context.

To reinforce an earlier point, 70 percent of consumers between the ages of 15 and 20 want to buy goods from companies committed to sustainability, and biodegradable plastics affect the appeal of businesses which would otherwise see less attention. To reduce emissions and increase interest, change is necessary.

Convenient Disposal

Recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging simplifies disposal for the consumer. It affords them more options in discarding these materials, and companies should always seek to make their products convenient, from start to finish. Biodegradable materials exemplify this mindset.

For example, consumers who prefer to compost their refuse won’t have to make exceptions for packaging. They can add biodegradable packaging to their compost in much the same way they would with any other compost-friendly material, contributing to the product’s value beyond its primary utility.

Looking Toward the Future

When reviewing the benefits listed above, business owners should feel confident in their decision to adopt biodegradable packaging. More than superficial benefits, they’ll enjoy reduced costs and carbon emissions while increasing consumer convenience and reducing plastic pollution. The advantages are clear.

Looking toward the future, it’s safe to speculate more companies will transition toward eco-friendly practices. With this in mind, taking action now is the best option, and though biodegradable packaging is a small step, it’s an important one.

Biogas Prospects in Rural Areas: Perspectives

Biogas, sometimes called renewable natural gas, could be part of the solution for providing people in rural areas with reliable, clean and cheap energy. In fact, it could provide various benefits beyond clean fuel as well, including improved sanitation, health and environmental sustainability.

What Is Biogas?

Biogas is the high calorific value gas produced by anaerobic decomposition of organic wastes. Biogas can come from a variety of sources including organic fraction of MSW, animal wastes, poultry litter, crop residues, food waste, sewage and organic industrial effluents. Biogas can be used to produce electricity, for heating, for lighting and to power vehicles.

Using manure for energy might seem unappealing, but you don’t burn the organic matter directly. Instead, you burn the methane gas it produces, which is odorless and clean burning.

Biogas Prospects in Rural Areas

Biogas finds wide application in all parts of the world, but it could be especially useful to developing countries, especially in rural areas. People that live in these places likely already use a form of biomass energy — burning wood. Using wood fires for heat, light and cooking releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The smoke they release also has harmful health impacts, particularly when used indoors. You also need a lot to burn a lot of wood when it’s your primary energy source. Collecting this wood is a time-consuming and sometimes difficult as well as dangerous task.

Many of these same communities that rely on wood fires, however, also have an abundant supply of another fuel source. They just need the tools to capture and use it. Many of these have a lot of dung from livestock and lack sanitation equipment. This lack of sanitation creates health hazards.

Turning that waste into biogas could solve both the energy problem and the sanitation problem. Creating a biogas system for a rural home is much simpler than building other types of systems. It requires an airtight pit lined and covered with concrete and a way to feed waste from animals and latrines into the pit. Because the pit is sealed, the waste will decompose quickly, releasing methane.

This methane flows through a PCV pipe to the home where you can turn it on and light on when you need to use it. This system also produces manure that is free of pathogens, which farmers can use as fertilizer.

A similar but larger setup can provide similar benefits for urban areas in developing countries and elsewhere.

Benefits of Biogas

Anaerobic digestion systems are beneficial to developing countries because they are low-cost compared to other technologies, low-tech, low-maintenance and safe. They provide reliable fuel as well as improved public health and sanitation. Also, they save people the labor of collecting large amounts of firewood, freeing them up to do other activities. Thus, biomass-based energy systems can help in rural development.

Biogas also has environmental benefits. It reduces the need to burn wood fires, which helps to slow deforestation and eliminates the emissions those fires would have produced. On average, a single home biogas system can replace approximately 4.5 tons of firewood annually and eliminate the associated four tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Biogas is also a clean, renewable energy source and reduces the need for fossil fuels. Chemically, biogas is the same as natural gas. Biogas, however, is a renewable fuel source, while natural gas is a fossil fuel. The methane in organic wastes would release into the atmosphere through natural processes if left alone, while the greenhouse gases in natural gas would stay trapped underground. Using biogas as a fuel source reduces the amount of methane released by matter decomposing out in the open.

What Can We Do?

Although biogas systems cost less than some other technologies, affording them is often still a challenge for low-income families in developing countries, especially in villages. Many of these families need financial and technical assistance to build them. Both governments and non-governmental organizations can step in to help in this area.

Once people do have biogas systems in place though, with minimal maintenance of the system, they can live healthier, more comfortable lives, while also reducing their impacts on the environment.

Progress of Waste-to-Energy in the USA

Rising rates of consumption necessitate an improved approach to resource management. Around the world, from Europe to Asia, governments have adapted their practices and policies to reflect renewability. They’ve invested in facilities that repurpose waste as source of energy, affording them a reliable and cheap source of energy.

This seems like progress, given the impracticality of older methods. Traditional sources of energy like fossil fuels are no longer a realistic option moving forward, not only for their finite nature but also within the context of the planet’s continued health. That said, the waste-to-energy sector is subject to scrutiny.

We’ll detail the reasons for this scrutiny, the waste-to-energy sector’s current status within the United States and speculations for the future. Through a concise analysis of obstacles and opportunities, we’ll provide a holistic perspective of the waste-to-energy progress, with a summation of its positive and negative attributes.

Status of Waste-to-Energy Sector

The U.S. currently employs 86 municipal waste-to-energy facilities across 25 states for the purpose of energy recovery. While several have expanded to manage additional waste, the last new facility opened in 1995. To understand this apparent lack of progress in the area of thermochemical treatment of MSW, budget represents a serious barrier.

One of the primary reasons behind the shortage of waste-to-energy facilities in the USA is their cost. The cost of construction on a new plant often exceeds $100 million, and larger plants require double or triple that figure to build. In addition to that, the economic benefits of the investment aren’t immediately noticeable.

The Palm Beach County Renewable Energy Facility is a RDF-based waste-to-energy (WTE) facility.

The U.S. also has a surplus of available land. Where smaller countries like Japan have limited space to work within, the U.S. can choose to pursue more financially viable options such as landfills. The expenses associated with a landfill are far less significant than those associated with a waste-to-energy facility.

Presently, the U.S. processes 14 percent of its trash in waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, which is still a substantial amount of refuse given today’s rate of consumption. On a larger scale, North America ranks third in the world in the waste-to-energy movement, behind the European nations and the Asia Pacific region.

Future of WTE Sector

Certain factors influence the framework of an energy policy. Government officials have to consider the projected increase in energy demand, concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, space-constrained or preferred land use, fuel availability and potential disruptions to the supply chain.

A waste-to-energy facility accounts for several of these factors, such as space constraints and fuel availability, but pollution remains an issue. Many argue that the incineration of trash isn’t an effective means of reducing waste or protecting the environment, and they have evidence to support this.

The waste-to-energy sector extends beyond MSW facilities, however. It also encompasses biofuel, which has seen an increase in popularity. The aviation industry has shown a growing dedication to biofuel, with United Airlines investing $30 million in the largest producer of aviation biofuel.

If the interest of United Airlines and other companies is any indication, the waste-to-energy sector will continue to expand. Though negative press and the high cost of waste-to-energy facilities may impede its progress, advances in technology promise to improve efficiency and reduce expenses.

Positives and Negatives

The waste-to-energy sector provides many benefits, allowing communities a method of repurposing their waste. It has negative aspects that are also important to note, like the potential for pollution. While the sector offers solutions, some of them come at a cost.

It’s true that resource management is essential, and adapting practices to meet high standards of renewability is critical to the planet’s health. However, it’s also necessary to recognize risk, and the waste-to-energy sector is not without its flaws. How those flaws will affect the sector moving forward is critical to consider.

Share of Renewables in Energy Supply of UK

The Earth is facing a climate crisis, as the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity and power our cars overloads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, causing a dangerous atmospheric imbalance that’s raising global temperatures.

A report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month cautioned that the planet has just 12 years to dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions, by overhauling our energy systems and economies and likely, our societies and political systems. Even a half degree rise beyond that would cause catastrophic sea level rises, droughts, heat, hunger, and poverty, spelling disaster for our species.

UK’s Commitment to Climate Change Mitigation

The UK government has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, a process that will involve overhauling our energy supply, which is responsible for 25% of greenhouse emissions in the country, just behind transport (26% of all emissions). But it may be too little too late. The government has already said it is reviewing these targets in light of the IPCC report and in the spring began consulting on a net-zero carbon emissions target for 2050.

But despite these dire prognoses and the enormity of the task facing us as a species, there’s reason to be optimistic. The UK has already managed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43% on 1990 levels, with much of the reduction coming from a 57% decline in emissions from energy generation. This is in part thanks to several providers offering you the chance to have a 100% renewable domestic energy supply.

Reduction in Coal Usage

The use of coal has plunged nearly overnight in the UK. In 2012, 42% of the UK’s electricity demand was met by coal. Just six years later, in the second quarter of 2018, that figure had fallen to just 1.6%. Emissions from coal-fired power stations fell from 129 million tonnes of CO2 to just 19 million tonnes over the same period.

A coal-free Britain is already on the horizon. In April 2017, the UK logged its first coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution; this past April we extended the run to 76 consecutive hours. In fact, in the second quarter of 2018, all the UK’s coal power stations were offline for a total of 812 hours, or 37% of the time. That’s more coal free hours than were recorded in 2016 and 2017 combined and in just three months.

When the UK does rely on coal power, it’s primarily to balance supplies and to meet demand overnight and during cold snaps, such as during the Beast from the East storm in March. The UK is so certain that coal is a technology of the past, that the government has plans to mothball all seven remaining coal-fired power stations by 2025.

Share of Renewables in Energy Supply

The decline in coal has been matched by an explosion in renewable energy, particularly in wind power. In the second quarter of 2018, renewables generated 31.7% of the UK’s electricity, up from under 9% in 2011. Of those, wind power produced 13.3% of all electricity (7.1% from onshore turbines farms and 6.2% from offshore wind farms), biomass energy contributed another 11% of the UK’s electricity, solar generated 6% and hydro power made up the rest of renewables’ pie share.

The UK’s total installed renewables capacity has exploded, hitting 42.2GW in the second quarter of 2018, up from under 10GW in 2010. That includes 13.7GW of onshore wind capacity and 7.8GW of offshore wind capacity—a figure which will get a boost with the opening in September of the world’s largest wind farm, the Walney Extension, off the coast of Cumbria, itself with a capacity of nearly 0.7GW. Solar panels contributed another 13GW of renewable capacity, and installed plant biomass infrastructure reaching 3.3GW.

However, while renewables are transforming electricity generation in the UK, our energy system consists of more than simply electricity. We also have to account for natural gas and the use of fuel in transport, and renewables have made fewer in roads in those sectors.

The UK is meeting just 9.3% of its total energy needs from renewable sources, short of the 15% it has earmarked for 2020 and far behind its peers in the EU, where Sweden is already running on 53.8% renewable energy.

Conclusion

Emissions are dropping overall in the UK, largely due to an ongoing revolution in electricity generation and a decisive move away from coal. But these reductions have concealed stagnant and even increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors, including transport and agriculture.

Our transition to a sustainable economy has begun but will require more than wind farms and the shuttering of coal-fired power stations. It must encompass electric vehicles, transformed industries, and ultimately changing attitudes toward energy and the environment and our responsibility toward it.

Use of Big Data in Achieving Sustainable Development Goals

Big data is everywhere, and all sorts of businesses, non-profits, governments and other groups use it to improve their understanding of certain topics and improve their practices. Big data is quite a buzzword, but its definition is relatively straightforward — it refers to any data that is high-volume, gets collected frequently or covers a wide variety of topics.

This kind of data when organized and analyzed adequately can be quite valuable. Marketing teams use it to learn more about their customer base, healthcare professionals can use it to calculate someone’s chance of contracting a given disease, and cities can use it to optimize traffic flow, and it can also help in saving wildlife.

Big data also has the potential to help significantly improve the quality of life for much of the world’s population. The United Nations, governments, not-for-profits and other groups are using big data to help achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals or SDGs — a set of 17 targets related to protecting the natural environment, reducing inequality, improving health outcomes and other things that will make life better around the world.

How Can We Use Big Data to Achieve SDGs?

There are many ways in which we could use data to improve our understanding of our progress towards the SDGs, determine how best to meet those targets and ensure accountability. The United Nations has set up a task team to explore how to use big data to help achieve the SDGs. A survey by the task team found that big data projects most frequently focused on the “no poverty” goal and that mobile phone data was the most common data source.

Pulse Lab Jakarta, a joint effort between the United Nations and the government of Indonesia, is working on various big data projects related to the SDGs. One of their projects is the Vulnerability Analysis Monitoring Platform for Impact of Regional Events (VAMPIRE) platform, which analyzes satellite imagery and creates maps that incorporate anomalies related to climate and rainfall to help track slow-onset climate changes.

Another project, the Manitoba Bioeconomy Atlas, comes from the International Institute for Sustainable Development and involves that creation of a web-based spatial inventory of biomass sources. Biomass producers can use the data to optimally locate biomass refineries, and biomass consumers can use it to source biomass and calculate costs.

There are many other potential uses for big data related to the SDGs. Mobile phone data, for instance, could be used to track the movement of populations, such as refugees, to improve preparations. Data analysis could help predict changes in food prices. The possibilities are virtually endless.

What Are the Challenges and Risks?

The opportunities related to big data are plentiful, but there are also numerous challenges and risks. Collecting, storing and analyzing large amounts of data is in itself challenging. It requires advanced technology and infrastructure, which can be expensive. This limits the access of less developed countries to this technology. In the survey by the UN’s bid data task team, the team received much higher response rates from high-income countries than lower-income ones.

Privacy is another significant concern. It’s essential that those processing respect the rights of those they collect data from. The fact that much data is collected passively can complicate this. Even removing sensitive information from data sets may not always be enough to guarantee privacy, since people could be identified by combining information from multiple data sets. Those handling personal data need to take steps to protect subjects’ privacy.

The UN, through several of its groups, has issued recommendations and guidelines for the use of big data related to SDGs. Among the goals of these guidelines is ensuring privacy and increasing access to data worldwide. The private and public sectors, as well as countries and organizations from around the world, will have to work together to accomplish the UN’s SDGs and to ensure that we can take full advantage of the benefits big data can provide related to achieving them.

Biogas Sector in India: Perspectives

Biogas is an often overlooked and neglected aspect of renewable energy in India. While solar, wind and hydropower dominate the discussion in the cuntry, they are not the only options available. Biogas is a lesser known but highly important option to foster sustainable development in agriculture-based economies, such as India.

What is Biogas

Briefly speaking, biogas is the production of gaseous fuel, usually methane, by fermentation of organic material. It is an anaerobic process or one that takes place in the absence of oxygen. Technically, the yeast that causes your bread to rise or the alcohol in beer to ferment is a form of biogas. We don’t use it in the same way that we would use other renewable sources, but the idea is similar. Biogas can be used for cooking, lighting, heating, power generation and much more. Infact, biogas is an excellent and effective to promote development of rural and marginalized communities in all developing countries.

This presents a problem, however. The organic matter is putting off a gas, and to use it, we have to turn it into a liquid. This requires work, machinery and manpower. Research is still being done to figure out the most efficient methods to make it work, but there is a great deal of progress that has been made, and the technology is no longer new.

Fossil Fuel Importation

India has a rapidly expanding economy and the population to fit. This has created problems with electricity supplies to expanding areas. Like most countries, India mainly uses fossil fuels. However, as oil prices fluctuate and the country’s demand for oil grows, the supply doesn’t always keep up with the demand. In the past, India has primarily imported oil from the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Without a steady and sustainable fossil fuels supply, India has looking more seriously into renewable sources they can produce within the country. Biogas is an excellent candidate to meet those requirements and has been used for this goal before.

Biogas in India

There are significant differences between biogas and fossil fuels, but for India, one of the biggest is that you can create biogas at home. It’s pretty tricky to find, dig up and transform crude oil into gas, but biogas doesn’t have the same barriers. In fact, many farmers who those who have gardens or greenhouses could benefit with proper water management and temperature control so that plants can be grown year round, It still takes some learning and investment, but for many people, especially those who live in rural places, it’s doable.

This would be the most beneficial to people in India because it would help ease the strain of delivering reliable energy sources based on fossil fuels, and would allow the country to become more energy independent. Plus, the rural areas are places where the raw materials for biogas will be more available, such animal manure, crop residues and poultry litter. But this isn’t the first time most people there are hearing about it.

Biogas in India has been around for a long time. In the 1970’s the country began a program called the National Biogas and Manure Management Program (NBMMP) to deal with the same problem — a gas shortage. The country did a great deal of research and implemented a wide variety of ideas to help their people become more self-sufficient, regardless of the availability of traditional gasoline and other fossil fuel based products.

The original program was pioneering for its time, but the Chinese quickly followed suit and have been able to top the market in biogas production in relatively little time. Comparatively, India’s production of biogas is quite small. It only produces about 2.07 billion m3/year of biogas, while it’s estimated that it could produce as much as 48 billion m3/year. This means that there are various issues with the current method’s India is using in its biogas production.

Biogas_Animal

Biogas has the potential to rejuvenate India’s agricultural sector

The original planning in the NBMMP involved scientists who tried to create the most efficient biogas generators. This was good, but it slowed people’s abilities to adopt the techniques individually. China, on the other hand, explicitly worked to help their most rural areas create biogas. This allowed the country to spread the development of biogas to the most people with the lowest barriers to its proliferation.

If India can learn from the strategy that China has employed, they may be able to give their biogas production a significant boost which will also help in the rejuvenation of biomass sector in the country. Doing so will require the help and willingness of both the people and the government. Either way, this is an industry with a lot of room for growth.

Towards Sustainable Biomass Energy

biomass-balesBiomass is one of the oldest and simplest ways of getting heat and energy, and it’s starting to make a comeback due to its status as renewable resource. Some, however, aren’t so sure that using more of it would be good for our environment. So, how sustainable is biomass energy really?

What is Biomass?

Biomass is organic material from plants and animals. It naturally contains energy because plants absorb it from the sun through photosynthesis. When you burn biomass, it releases that energy. It’s also sometimes converted into a liquid or gas form before it is burned.

Biomass includes a wide variety of materials but includes:

  • Wood and wood processing waste
  • Agricultural crops
  • Garbage made up of food, yard and wood waste
  • Animal manure and human sewage

About five percent of the United States’ energy comes from biomass. Biomass fuel products such as ethanol make up about 48 percent of that five percent while wood makes up about 41 percent and municipal waste accounts for around 11 percent.

The Benefits of Biomass

Biomass is a renewable resource because the plants that store the energy released when it is burned can be regrown continuously. In theory, if you planted the same amount of vegetation that you burned, it would be carbon neutral because the plants would absorb all of the carbon released. Doing this is, however, much easier said than done.

Another potential is that it serves as a use for waste materials that have are already been created. It adds value to what otherwise would be purely waste.

Additionally, many forms of biomass are also relatively low-tech energy sources, so they may be useful, or even required for older buildings that need an electrical renovation.

Drawbacks of Biomass

A major drawback of using biomass fuel is that it is not an efficient process. In fact, burning it can release even more carbon dioxide than burning the same amount of a fossil fuel.

While you can replenish the organic matter you burn, doing so requires complex crop or forest management and the use of a large amount of land.  Also, some biomass, such as wood, takes a long time to grow back. This amounts to a delay in carbon absorption. Additionally, the harvesting of biomass will likely involve some sort of emissions.

 Is it Sustainable?

So, is biomass energy sustainable? Measuring the environmental impacts of biomass fuel use has proven to be complex due to the high number of variables, which has led to a lot of disagreement about this question.

Some assert that biomass use cannot be carbon neutral, because even if you burned and planted the same amount of organic matter, harvesting it would still result in some emissions. This could perhaps be avoided if you used renewable energy to harvest it. A continuous supply of biomass would likely require it to be transported long distances, worsening the challenge of going carbon neutral.

With careful planning, responsible land management and environmentally friendly harvesting and distribution, biomass could be close to, if not entirely, carbon neutral and sustainable. Given our reliance on fossil fuels, high energy consumption levels and the limited availability of land and other resources, this would be an immense challenge to undertake and require a complete overhaul of our energy use.

How to Improve the Biomass Industry

Biomass could emerge as a major solution to our energy and sustainability issues, but it isn’t likely to be a comprehensive solution. There are some things we can do, though, to make biomass use more sustainable when we do use it.

  • Source locally: Using biomass that comes from the local area reduces the impact of distributing it.
  • Clean distribution: If you do transport biofuel long distances, using an electric or hybrid vehicles powered largely by clean energy would be the most eco-friendly way to do it. This also applies to transporting it short distances.

Measuring the environmental impacts of biomass fuel use is complex due to high number of variables

  • Clean harvesting: Using environmentally friendly, non-emitting means of harvesting can greatly reduce the impact of using biomass. This might also involve electric vehicles.
  • Manage land sustainably: For biomass to be healthy for the ecosystem, you must manage land used to grow it with responsible farming practices.
  • Focus on waste: Waste is likely the most environmentally friendly form of biomass because it uses materials that would otherwise simply decompose and doesn’t require you to grow any new resources for your fuel or energy needs.

Is biomass energy sustainable? It has the potential to be, but doing so would be quite complex and require quite a bit of resources. Any easier way to address the problem is to look at small areas of land and portions of energy use first. First, make that sustainable and then we may be able to expand that model on to a broader scale.

Insights into MSW-to-Energy

You know the saying: One person’s trash is another’s treasure. When it comes to recovering energy from municipal solid waste — commonly called garbage or trash— that treasure can be especially useful. Instead of taking up space in a landfill, we can process our trash to produce energy to power our homes, businesses and public buildings.

In 2015, the United States got about 14 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from burning municipal solid waste, or MSW. Seventy-one waste-to-energy plants and four additional power plants burned around 29 million tons of MSW in the U.S. that year. However, just 13 percent of the country’s waste becomes energy. Around 35 percent is recycled or composted, and the rest ends up in landfills.

Recovering Energy Through Incineration

The predominant technology for MSW-to-energy plants is incineration, which involves burning the trash at high temperatures. Similarly to how some facilities use coal or natural gas as fuel sources, power plants can also burn MSW as fuel to heat water, which creates steam, turns a turbine and produces electricity.

Several methods and technologies can play a role in burning trash to create electricity. The most common type of incineration plant is what’s called a mass-burn facility. These units burn the trash in one large chamber. The facility might sort the MSW before sending it to the combustion chamber to remove non-combustible materials and recyclables.

These mass-burn systems use excess air to facilitate mixing, and ensure air gets to all the waste. Many of these units also burn the fuel on a sloped, moving grate to mix the waste even further. These steps are vital because solid waste is inconsistent, and its content varies. Some facilities also shred the MSW before moving it to the combustion chamber.

Gasification Plants

Another method for converting trash into electricity is gasification. This type of waste-to-energy plant doesn’t burn MSW directly, but instead uses it as feedstock for reactions that produce a fuel gas known as synthesis gas, or syngas. This gas typically contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen and water vapor.

Approaches to gasification vary, but typically include high temperatures, high-pressure environments, very little oxygen and shredding MSW before the process begins. Common gasification methods include:

  • Pyrolysis, which involves little to no oxygen, partial pressure and temperatures between approximately 600 and 800 degrees Celsius.
  • Air-fed systems, which use air instead of pure oxygen and temperatures between 800 and 1,800 degrees Celsius.
  • Plasma or plasma arc gasification, which uses plasma torches to increase temperatures to 2,000 to 2,800 degrees Celsius.

Syngas can be burned to create electricity, but it can also be a component in the production of transportation fuels, fertilizers and chemicals. Proponents of gasification report that it is a more efficient waste-to-energy method than incineration, and can produce around 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity from one ton of MSW. Incineration, on average, produces 550 kilowatt-hours.

Challenges of MSW-to-Energy

Turning trash into energy seems like an ideal solution. We have a lot of trash to deal with, and we need to produce energy. MSW-to-energy plants solve both of those problems. However, a relatively small amount of waste becomes energy, especially in the U.S.

Typical layout of MSW-to-Energy Plant

This lack may be due largely to the upfront costs of building a waste-to-energy plant. It is much cheaper in the short term to send trash straight to a landfill. Some people believe these energy production processes are just too complicated and expensive. Gasification, especially, has a reputation for being too complex.

Environmental concerns also play a role, since burning waste can release greenhouse gases. Although modern technologies can make burning waste a cleaner process, its proponents still complain it is too dirty.

Despite these challenges, as trash piles up and we continue to look for new sources of energy, waste-to-energy plants may begin to play a more integral role in our energy production and waste management processes. If we handle it responsibly and efficiently, it could become a very viable solution to several of the issues our society faces.