Biomass: Another Renewable Energy Source

Energy Matters0

Posted on August 26, 2009

Biomass: Another Renewable Energy Source

Today’s posting comes from AltaTerra Research’s principal analyst in “green data centers.” Data centers are responsible not only for giving you your email, web browsing, credit card transactions and views of your friends’ photos, but also a growing amount of energy use–on a par with the airline industry. In today’s post, Dr. Zen Kishimoto ponders the possibility of biomass powered data centers.

I have covered renewable energy sources, namely wind, solar, and geothermal, in previous blogs.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has reported the power generation breakdown among renewable energies and their distribution, as shown in the figure below.

The EIA report separates wood and wood type from other biomass. Other analyses, such as Wikipedia’s, combine this type with the rest of biomass.


Biomass, a renewable energy source, is biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms,[1] such as wood, waste, and alcohol fuels. Biomass is commonly plant matter grown to generate electricity or produce heat. For example, forest residues (such as dead trees, branches, and tree stumps), yard clippings and wood chips may be used as biomass. However, biomass also includes plant or animal matter used for production of fibers or chemicals. Biomass may also include biodegradable wastes that can be burnt as fuel. It excludes organic material such as fossil fuel which has been transformed by geological processes into substances such as coal or petroleum.

Renewable Energy Power Generation Breakdown

Power generated by each renewable energy source in 2008 (thousands of MWh)

In my previous blog, I noted that there are more solar-powered data centers than wind-powered ones. But in reality, wind generates more power than solar and appears to be suitable for powering data centers. This observation is reinforced by the EIA breakdown, which shows that there is more than 30 times as much wind power as solar. Biomass generates about half the power that wind does. And if the wood and wood-type category is combined with the rest of biomass, then the power generated will be more than that by wind (52% vs. 33%).

What about using biomass power for data centers? I searched for some examples of biomass-generated power for data centers, but I could not find many. Rich Miller of Data Center Knowledge reports in his blog that Emerson has installed a 100 kW solar panel array on its data center. In the comment section, someone mentioned the availability of power generated by biomass, as 20 tons of biowaste produces 3 MWh a day. In another of Miller’s blogs, I found another example of the power generated by biomass for Internet Villages International (IVI) in Scotland. Plans call for the IVI data centers to use electricity from a nearby biomass plant at Steven’s Croft operated by E-On UK (Powergen) and local wind farms. Local weather makes the area a prospect for using outside air to cool the servers (air-side economization). Waste heat from the data center buildings may be used to heat a nearby residential development.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are producing three piles of biomass, a.k.a. compost, in our backyard. By recycling our waste, we cut down substantially on the amount of garbage we produce. However, we have found that doing this requires a lot of water. Although we are not generating power from this, I wonder how much water the generation of biomass consumes. I wrote on the shortage of water before.

Compost piles

My three biomass piles—compost—in the backyard


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