The Role of Biomass Energy in Net-Zero Buildings

The concept of biomass energy is still in its infancy in most parts of the world, but nevertheless, it does have an important role to play in terms of sustainability in general and net-zero buildings in particular. Once processed, biomass is a renewable source of energy that has amazing potential. But there is a lot of work to be done to exploit even a fraction of the possibilities that would play a significant role in providing our homes and commercial buildings with renewable energy.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), only about 5% of the total primary energy usage in the U.S. comes from biomass fuels. So there really is a way to go.

The Concept of Biomass Energy

Generally regarded as any carbon-based material including plants, food waste, industrial waste, reclaimed woody materials, algae, and even human and animal waste, biomass is processed to produce effective organic fuels.

The main sources of biomass include wood mills and furniture factories, landfill sites, horticultural centers, wastewater treatment plants, and areas where invasive and alien tree and grass species grow.

Whether converted into biogas or liquid biofuels, or burned as is, the biomass releases its chemical energy in the form of heat. Of course, it depends on what kind of material the biomass is. For instance, solid types including wood and suitable garbage can be burned without any need for processing. This makes up more than half the biomass fuels used in the U.S. Other types can be converted into biodiesel and ethanol.

Generally:

  • Biogas forms naturally in landfills when yard waste, food scraps, paper and so on decompose. It is composed mainly of carbon dioxide
  • Biogas can also be produced by processing animal manure and human sewage in digesters.
  • Biodiesel is produced from animal fats and vegetable oils including soybeans and palm oil.
  • Ethanol is made from various crops including sugar cane and corn that are fermented.

How Biomass Fuels Are Used

Ethanol has been used in vehicles for decades and ethanol-gasoline blends are now quite common. In fact, some racing drivers opt for high ethanol blends because they lower costs and improve quality. While the percentage of ethanol is substantially lower, it is now found in most gasoline sold in the U.S. Biodiesel can also be used in vehicles and it is also used as heating oil.

But in terms of their role in net-zero buildings:

  • Wood and wood processing waste is burned to heat buildings and to generate electricity.
  • In addition to being converted to liquid biofuels, various waste materials including some crops like sugar cane and corn can also be burned as fuel.
  • Garbage, in the form of yard, food, and wood waste, can be converted to biogas in landfills and anaerobic digesters. It can also be burned to generate electricity.
  • Human sewage and animal manure can be converted to biogas and burned as heating fuel.

Biomass as a Viable Clean Energy Source for Net-Zero Energy Buildings

Don’t rely on what I say, let’s look at some research, specifically, a study published just last year (2018) that deals with the development of net-zero energy buildings in Florida. It looked at the capacity of biomass, geothermal, hydrokinetic, hydropower, marine, solar, and wind power (in alphabetical order) to deliver renewable energy resources. More specifically, the study evaluated Florida’s potential to utilize various renewable energy resources.

Generating electricity from wind isn’t feasible in Florida because the average wind speeds are slow. The topography and hydrology requirements are inadequate and both hydrokinetic and marine energy resources are limited. But both solar and biomass offer “abundant resources” in Florida. Unlike most other renewable resources, the infrastructure and equipment required are minimal and suitable for use within building areas, and they are both compatible with the needs of net-zero energy.

The concept of net-zero buildings has, of course, been established by the World Green Building Council (GBC), which has set timelines of 2030 and 2050 respectively for new and all buildings to achieve net-zero carbon goals. Simplistically, what this means is that buildings, including our homes, will need to become carbon neutral, using only as much renewable energy as they can produce on site.

But nothing is simplistic when it comes to net-zero energy buildings (ZEB) ). Rather, different categories offer different boundaries in terms of how renewable energy strategies are utilized. These show that net-zero energy buildings are not all the same:

  • ZEB A buildings utilize strategies within the building footprint
  • ZEB B within the site of the property
  • ZEB C within the site but from off-site resources
  • ZEB D generate renewable energy off-site

While solar works for ZEB A and both solar and wind work for ZEB B buildings, biomass and biofuels are suitable for ZEB C and D buildings, particularly in Florida.

Even though this particular study is Florida-specific, it indicates the probability that the role of biomass energy will ultimately be limited, but that it can certainly help buildings reach a net-zero status.

There will be different requirements and benefits in different areas, but certainly professionals offering engineering solutions in Chicago, New York, London (Canada and the UK), and all the other large cities in the world will be in a position to advise whether it is feasible to use biomass rather than other forms of eco-friendly energy for specific buildings.

Biomass might offer a more powerful solution than many people imagine.

Biomass Conveyors: An Overview

Biomass_ConveyorA well designed biomass conveyor system should take into account the variability of the material and provide the consistent and reliable flow that is crucial to power generation. Depending upon the type of boiler and conversion system, the fuel is either transported directly to the powerhouse via a belt conveyor, or first processed in a chipper/grinder to produce a finer texture. For example, municipal solid waste is deposited into pits where cranes mix the refuse and remove any large, non-combustible items. Sometimes, it is further processed to remove ferrous materials, glass, and other non-combustible materials.

For large pellet-fired biomass system, rail dump method is very common where railway tracks are constructed to transport biomass. Station is specified for train and fuel receiving bins are typically located below the track and rail cars dump into bins, either directly or through a rotary dumper. Fuel received is then transferred by belt conveyors to the biomass storage bins. For small particle size, pneumatic conveying system offer greater flexibility in routing than traditional belt conveyors. Equipment specific to pneumatic systems include positive displacement blowers and rotary feeders that function as air locks.

In a typical biomass thermal power plant, the initial process in the power generation is biomass fuel handling. A railway siding line is taken into the power station and the biomass is delivered in the storage yard. It is then unloaded from the point of delivery by means of wagon tippler. It is rack and pinion type. The biomass is taken from the unloading site to dead storage by belt conveyors. The belt deliver the biomass to warehouse.

The transfer points inside the warehouse are used to transfer biomass to the next belt. The belt elevates the biomass to breaker house. It consists of a rotary machine, which rotates the biomass and separates the light inorganic materials (viz. plastic or other incombustible particles) from it through the action of gravity and transfer it to reject bin house through belt. The belt further elevates the biomass until it reaches the crusher through belt. In the crusher a high-speed 3-phase induction motor is used to crush the biomass according to the requirement, for gasification size range is usually upto 15-20mm, while for biomass-fired boiler, size of 50mm is acceptable. Biomass rises from crusher house and reaches the dead storage.

Cost-effective production of biomass energy is very much dependent on efficient handling of available biomass sources, as well as the efficiency of each process. An important, but often overlooked, area is the efficient receiving of different types and different capacities of biomass as it enters the plant and then conveying this material to the production equipment.  In many cases, the space available for biomass handling is limited.

Receiving equipment can be installed in a pit or at the ground level. The size and volume of the receiving pocket can be suited to vehicle volumes or turn-around times. The receiving pit can be used as small buffer biomass storage or as an emergency or mixing pocket.

Belt conveyors are an economical and reliable choice for transferring biomass over long distances at high capacities with lower noise levels. Designs range from simple, open configurations to totally closed and washable conveyor galleries. Well engineered conveyors have the maximum safe distance between support legs to minimize the cost of civil construction as well as reducing the number of obstructions on the ground.

Chain conveyors are a reliable choice for transporting unscreened or dusty biomass, or when the available space is limited. Screw conveyors are a very economical alternative for transporting biomass over short distances.

Biomass conveyors are an integral feature of all biomass conversion routes

Nowadays, automated conveyor systems are getting traction around the world. Fully automated fuel handling systems employ a biomass storage bin that can hold upto 50 tons (or more) of biomass. The bin is filled by a self-unloading truck with negligible or no onsite staff assistance. From the biomass storage bunker, the fuel is fed automatically to the boiler by augers and conveyors. The fully automated system is a good match for biomass plants where maintenance staff has a large work load and cannot spend much time working with the biomass conversion plant.

Pellet-based hopper systems offer low costs for both installation and operation. In a modern biomass pellet boiler system, fuel is stored in a relatively low-cost grain silo and automatically fed, with no operator intervention, to the boiler or boilers with auger systems similar to those used for conveying feed grain on farms.

The fuel-handling system uses electric motors and is run by automated controls that provide the right amount of fuel to the combustion chamber based on facility demand. Such conveyor systems require minimal maintenance, around 20-30 minutes daily, for ash removal and maintenance of motors and augers, estimated to be about 20-30 minutes per day.