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Biomass for Electricity Generation

by Zia Haq

This paper examines issues affecting the uses of biomass for electricity generation. The methodology used in the National Energy Modeling System to account for various types of biomass is discussed, and the underlying assumptions are explained. The Energy Information Administration’s estimation of biomass resources shows that there are 590 million wet tons of biomass available in the United States on an annual basis; 20 million wet tons (enough to supply about 3 gigawatts of capacity) are available today at prices of $1.25 per million Btu or less. The average price of coal to electric utilities in 2001 was $1.23 per million Btu.

The U.S. economy uses biomass-based materials as a source of energy in many ways. Wood and agricultural residues are burned as a fuel for cogeneration of steam and electricity in the industrial sector. Biomass is used for power generation in the electricity sector and for space heating in residential and commercial buildings.

Biomass can be converted to a liquid form for use as a transportation fuel, and research is being conducted on the production of fuels and chemicals from biomass. Biomass materials can also be used directly in the manufacture of a variety of products.

In the electricity sector, biomass is used for power generation. The Energy Information Administration (EIA), in its Annual Energy Outlook 2002 (AEO2002) reference case,1 projects that biomass will generate 15.3 billion kilowatthours of electricity, or 0.3 percent of the projected 5,476 billion kilowatthours of total generation, in 2020.

In scenarios that reflect the impact of a 20-percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS)2 and in scenarios that assume carbon dioxide emission reduction requirements based on the Kyoto Protocol,3 electricity generation from biomass is projected to increase substantially.

Therefore, it is critical to evaluate the practical limits and challenges faced by the U.S. biomass industry. This paper examines the range of costs, resource availability, regional variations, and other issues pertaining to biomass use for electricity generation.

The methodology by which the National Energy Modeling System (NEMS) accounts for various types of biomass is discussed, and the underlying assumptions are explained. A major challenge in forecasting biomass energy growth is estimating resource potential. EIA has compiled available biomass resource estimates from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL),4 Antares Group, Inc.,5 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This paper discusses how these data are used for forecasting purposes and the implications of the resulting forecasts, focusing on biomass used in grid-connected electricity generation applications.


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