Researchers from Germany are pushing the use of straw to provide power to as many as 2.8 million homes and heat up to 4.5 million homes, and while they don’t expect to turn straw into energy gold overnight, getting back to the basic could change the way we think about biomass and waste.
The researchers estimate that out of a total of 30 million tons of cereal straw produced annually in Germany, between 8 and 13 million tons could be used to produce enough energy or fuel to provide 1.7-2.8 million average households with electricity and 2.8-4.5 million households with heating.
For now, straw is being underutilized as a biomass residue and waste material, but its applications offer enormous potential, they say.
Related article: EU Kills Bill to Limit Food-Based Biofuels
Is it climate friendly? The jury still seems to be out on this, and the researchers say it depends on how straw is used.
"Straw should therefore primarily be used in larger district heating stations and/or combined heat and power stations, but technology must be developed for an environmentally-friendly utilization," Dr. Armin Vetter from the Thueringian regional institute for agriculture (TLL), coauthor of the study said.
Burning plants for fuel produces carbon dioxide (CO2), but according to the German researchers, if done right, using biomass instead of fossil fuels could cut emissions by 73% to 92%.
The researchers determined that 30 megatons of cereal straw were produced annually in 1999, 2003 and 2007. Only about half of this is available in the end as not all parts of the straw can be used, and because much of it is diverted for livestock bedding.
In addition, some of the straw must be left scattered on the land in order to prevent nutrients from being permanently extracted.
Related article: Synthetics Breakthrough to Increase Biofuel Production by 50%
“Straw-based energy applications should be developed in Germany in particular in those regions with favorable conditions and appropriate power plants. Even if we wouldn’t be spinning straw into gold in the foreseeable future, it would still make an important contribution to the energy turnaround. Looking across the border shows us what is feasible when the course is optimally set,” researchers wrote.
And look no further than Denmark, the world leader in straw-based energy applications. The country generates over 5 billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year from straw.
By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com