A Matter of Energy

Energy and heat have so made themselves an essential part of the human condition – in current times as in past – that human life anywhere on earth seems inconceivable, without the conveniences and comfort that, whether people realize it or not, cannot be provided without them.

People have been so conditioned by years of living with it that, when asked what they may understand of energy and heat, the image that automatically comes to mind of which the mouth would speak would be: electricity.

When you need a home appliance to run or serve a need, you plug it in that wall outlet. When you need light, a form of energy, you simply put the switch on. When the atmospheric heat is suffocating and you need to cool a room, you simply turn on the airconditioner; in arctic places, you turn on the heater. Both run on the same principle. Electricity runs the motor that runs the room air across pipes that are either frozen or heated.

Electricity is a form of energy, much like the heat and light coming from the sun. Electricity is found in physical nature, in the positive and negative charges in the atmosphere that causes lightning and thunderstorm. It can likewise be generated in controllable conditions by passing a metal coil across a magnet — the principle applied in the big turbines generating electricity in hydroelectric dams or in oil-run or heat-driven generators.

Being dependent on motion, sustained in motion by another energy source, such as heat generated by burning fuel oil or some other combustible material, electricity as an energy form is just as finite as the energy sources that generate motion that generates it: the sun, bodies of water, the wind, fossil fuel, geothermal heat, or biomass.

Biomass, a term still generally unheard of by many, has been with us just as long as the other sources of energy mentioned. It has come to the fore only lately among experts as a potent source of energy in the face of sheer magnitude of increasing global populations and against the increasing incapacity of so-called traditional energy sources to supply demand.

Biomass includes, according to the experts, forestry and agricultural surpluses as well as organic wastes and residues from forestry, agriculture, food processing and human communities. Yuppies may take that definition as, well, a fine one, but cast it aside as something for the birds in rural airs, not really having no way of knowing the magnitudes implied in that simple definition.

Forest may perhaps be described as millions and millions of square kilometers of earth cover: trees, vines, secondary growths, shrubs, grasses, and what-have-you. From trees take away the trunk, and you have the leaves, branches, flowers, fruits, parasitic plants clinging to the trees, the bark, the crown and lower trunk after cutting the tree. Agricultural surpluses can be tons and tons of rice or wheat or corn or sugarcane stalks and the like every harvest time, and livestock (cattle, hogs, fowl, wild animals) leavings and skeletons and parts thrown away after dress-ing them.

When these things start to rot, they become the forestry and agricultural wastes and residues. When forestry products are processed and agricultural crops turned into food, another type of wastes and residues is left behind. These products and crops serve human needs and in the process of living humans leave behind a lot of waste, including the biological kind.

Thus, when you take away the soil, the stones, the minerals, the water and humans (leaving behind their leavings), from the whole earthen landscape, all that will be left, by definition, seems to be biomass.

These are what used to be living things, and what’s left of them, all that for existence depended on sunlight, the soil, water, the stones and minerals to live and thrive, and to some extent on human interventions.

But especially on the sun. We all know from elementary science that plants take their energy from the sun and store it in chemical compounds through the process of photosynthesis. When the animals consume plants, the plants ingested become a source of energy and become the animals’ own stored energy. When fish or meat is in turn eaten by carnivores, among them humans, the same assimilation process applies.

The stored energy makes plant wastes and residues, as well as livestock wastes and residues, combustible. This makes them able to produce heat when lit and burned. This is according to a law of physics — that of conservation — that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, but only transformed.

Based on this hypothesis, and from the human tradition of using wood, animal wastes and other organic matter as source of heat and energy, experts today are able to estimate that the net annual worldwide biomass photosynthetic productivity is at 160 – 200 billion tons. This is equal to a theoretical energy of about 80 – 100 billion toe (tons oil equivalent), or the energy producible by fuel oil of that magnitude.

But this rich energy resource is there. The World Resources Institute report that developing countries all over the world consume 85% of all traditional biomass fuels. Every year, according to UNEP, people chop and burn firewood equivalent to 22,000 square kilometers of trees to cook food and heat their homes.

Much of this wood is made into charcoal, a process that wastes as much as 70% of the energy of the wood. Should the practice not stop, it is reported that nearly 3 billion people all around the globe would be short of fuel they need.

That future time is now. Now we see people walking up for miles across treeless and arid land just to collect a few twigs or dried animal leavings by which to produce fire to cook food and generate heat for their bodies at night.

Yet, when you look at other spots of the earth, wide swathes of green envelop the land, bursting at their very seams with trees and forest resources — that oftentimes simply go up uselessly in smoke.

Forest fires occur regularly in almost every region: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China’s northeastern Inner Mongolian region, France, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico; in Latin American countries, in countries in the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United States.

In 1996-1998, fires devastated an estimated 3.3 million hectares of forest in Brazil, more than 3 million hectares in Mongolia, 4.5 million hectares in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia.

Still, biomass reportedly is able to contribute 11% of the total global energy supply — from the crude rural firewood for cooking to the state-of-the-art technology-based systems developed for harvesting, transporting and handling forestry and agricultural wastes, including the production of biogas from biomass.

These technologies have been able to harness biomass in producing heat, steam, electricity, gas, alcohol, and vegetable oil for various industrial uses. The Philippines has been into these technologies, and in research work into biomass application techniques that tap this locally abundant resource. One outstanding local invention is the so-called “green charcoal.”

According to its inventor, Gonzalo O. Catan, green charcoal is a solid fuel derived from organic and cellulosic waste materials such as coconut shell and husk, banana leaves, coffee pulp, rice straw, water lily, and all types of agricultural and post-harvest waste and biodegradable materials — treated with special enzymes and microbes.

When tested, the resulting charcoal demonstrated high BTU (British thermal unit) ranging between 7,200 to 10,000 BTU per pound. The charcoal contains no sulfur and other pollutive components. Green charcoal has consistently been found to be more efficient, convenient and competitive compared with traditional heating and cooking fuels such as LPG and firewood.

One can imagine from there how much good would it do a country like the Philippines if but 50% of its households turned from firewood and LPG to green charcoal, and if but even as small as 10% of other countries with fuel problems were to convert to this Philippine invention.

Moreover, the abundant indigenous resources of the country in terms of biomass, the least-cost energy option, make for a bright prospect that the country’s dependency for energy on fossil-based fuels will dramatically decline in the span of a decade.

A report compiled by the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Management Division, which is based on information derived from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, paints a promising picture.

According to the report, the Philippines could generate substantial volumes of agricultural residues that can be utilized as energy fuel. As of the current year, the potential has been quantified at 271.7 MMBFOE (million barrels of fuel oil equivalent) of biomass. The capacity is seen to increase by at least 1.9% annually, projecting the potential to reach 323.1 MMBFOE by 2012.

The report also points to an abundant supply of sugarcane bagasse in Regions III, IV, VI and VII, coconut residues in Regions IV, VIII, IX and XI, and rice hull in Regions II, III, IV and VI.

Topping micro-hydro, solar and wind as the country’s renewable energy, biomass has been seen effective in ovens, kilns, and furnaces for agro-industries, as well as in boilers and dryers. Altogether, there are reportedly some 42,039 such biogas/biomass systems in place in the country today.

As a result of the growing interest in renewable energy sources, especially biomass, the country’s dependence on imported fuels has declined in 2002 from 54.5% to 48.0%. In terms of volume, total consumption of imported oil and coal fell from 134.4 MMBFOE to 120.2 MMBFOE.

On the other hand, renewable energy sources provided the other biggest share in total primary energy consumption supplying 43.4% or 108.8 MMBFOE. Biomass accounted for the bulk of the renewable energy sources contribution and consumption at 78.8 MMBFOE.

Today, at current utilization efficiency levels, renewable energy sources contribute about 41% of the total primary energy mix in the country and are projected to increase annually by 2.8%.

As the government encourages the private sector to pursue energy projects, a total of 356 MW indicative capacity additions are expected to be generated using renewable sources, especially biomass. At present, DOE has received applications along this line equaling no less than 350 MW in future generating capacity.

by: Tony Calsado