hay field in Ulysses NY
Image by Sandy Repp

Biomass is renewable and is very useful.

About Biomass

The term "biomass" describes biological material that is derived from living or recently living things. There are many different uses for biomass, but most of the focus on biomass follows one of two paths: bioproducts and bioenergy. In a very general sense, it could be minimally processed and used as mulch or as animal bedding and most of the time we speak about biomass we are referring to the plant based side of it. 

Bioproducts include a whole collection of things that can be derived from processed biomass. Most of the products made from petroleum can be made from biomass, including plastics, certain cosmetics, glues, antifreeze, and an enormous number of chemicals essential to modern life.

Bioenergy is energy derived from biomass. The biomass can be burned; allowed to decompose to where it releases methane and other gases that can be burned; or it can be digested and the products, including combustible gases, collected. Burning it releases heat, which can be used simply to heat a space, or it can be used to produce steam which can power turbines to produce energy. Among the useful bioenergy products, the most common are ethanol and biodiesel.

Converting biomass to bioenergy has two significant benefits over using fossil fuels:

  • as mentioned above, it is renewable, meaning it can be harvested indefinitely
  • it does not release additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere beyond what currently exists in the atmospheric carbon cycle

Fossil fuels, by contrast, are not renewable--we have to continue to tap a finite resource each time we need more--and using them puts carbon into the atmosphere that was otherwise sequestered away deep in the earth. Of course, fossil fuels derive from biomass, as well, but it is renewable only over many thousands of years.

For more information on how biomass is converted to useful products, The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has a good primer on the subject at their site.

In Tompkins County, there are many efforts in play to make use of local biomass. CCETC has an extensive program on heating with wood that includes information on best practices, buying firewood, storing and drying firewood, health and emissions, wood stove safety, proper maintenance of wood stoves, and a page comparing combustion equipment. We are working with several groups in the area, including Cornell University researchers, local farmers, and entrepreneurs to explore all aspects of making use of local biomass resources, including growing, harvesting, processing, and end-uses. We are working on creating other pages within the biomass web site for the latest on these efforts. In the meantime, check out the biomass energy case studies we are putting together from around the state.

In 2009, CCETC conducted a series of biomass mapping workshops. These were held in the towns of Danby, Dryden, and Ulysses, and brought together landowners, farmers, and other interested community members to assess the real ability to access some of the thousands of acres of fallow-field lands in Tompkins County. In brief, we found the following:

  • most of the land available for harvesting wild grasses -- or for growing dedicated biomass crops such as switchgrass and reed canary grass -- is privately held
  • landowners and farmers need more education on the potential of biomass in order to participate in a biomass market
  • significant amounts of acreage in the county regularly convert from active farmland to fallow fields, with a trend toward losing open land

A full report from these workshops is available by contacting Guillermo Metz at gm52@cornell.edu.

Last updated July 20, 2021