Small-Scale Biomass Power Plants Could Stabilize National Power Grid, Help Local Economies, Research Finds

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Small-scale biomass plants could provide substantial benefits to the economies of rural areas, as well as doing a great deal to help stabilize the national grid, according to new research from the University of Missouri.

The research found — as you probably would expect — that it can be notably cheaper for rural areas to generate their own electricity rather than import it from urban regions via expensive infrastructure.

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“Transporting power through power lines to remote, rural areas is very inefficient and can be expensive for farmers and other rural citizens,” explained Tom Johnson, the Frank Miller Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the MU College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources and professor in the MU Truman School of Public Affairs. “Farmers already have access to a large amount of biomass material left over each year after harvests. If they had access to small biomass power plants, they could become close to self-sustaining in terms of power. If the grid was improved enough, they could even provide additional power to other people around the country, helping to stabilize the national power grid. This could help save rural citizens money and be a boon for rural economies.”

The researchers note that if/once people in these rural areas become bioenergy producers, the great many other advantages of such a setup would become readily apparent. The most notable of these advantages is the potential attraction of new industry and economic activity, the researchers argue.

The reasons for this, they say, is that “local transportation costs are lower compared to regions that must import transportation fuels, providing local businesses with an advantage over urban centers. Second, major consumers of processed energy, such as some manufacturers and firms with large air conditioning needs, will find rural areas more attractive because of their lower prices for energy.”

Of course, none of these benefits, economic and otherwise, will be likely to be realized without support from policymakers — preferably working directly with those living in rural areas to grow the infrastructure, the researchers state.

“This is unlikely to occur without clearly articulated goals coupled with strategic guidance from policy,” Johnson stated. “We need an integration of policy and programs among community leaders, rural entrepreneurs and economic developers or practitioners who act as conduits between entrepreneurs and policy. In order to grow this bioeconomy, the goals of these actors need to be aligned.”

Johnson also argues that, for such an approach to be successful in the long term, safeguards to protect renewable biomass resources would be a must. As well as mechanisms to “ensure an equitable distribution of the rewards from investing” — without which local citizens could actually end up worse off, as a result of possible environmental degradation and the potential loss of resources.

The new research was published in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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