Biomass is perhaps the renewable energy source that gets the least media attention – often relegated to the sidelines. However, it has big potential, especially in several countries in Latin America. Combustion of forest residues and other materials such as sugar cane bagasse can become an efficient way to produce electricity, and the number of countries making a bet on this source is growing.

Among the projects on the go is one planned for development in an Argentinean town with an important timber industry. The town is Villa Guillermina, located in the province of Santa Fe. This municipality will host a biomass station that will use forest material as fuel.

Chinese firm Runh Power will invest around $50 million to put this biomass power plant into operation. According to the Argentinean authorities’ forecasts, construction will begin later this year. The station will produce power through the combustion of biodegradable residues obtained from forest vegetation.  

Villa Guillermina’s president Roque Chávez said the biomass project has “big strategic importance” as it will make it possible to “generat[e] electric power through sustainable resources”. The station will produce energy that will be transmitted to Argentina’s System of Interconnection (Sadi), which will receive at least 15 MW during the project’s first stage. Chávez claimed that this production gives the project importance at “provincial and national” levels.  

The future Villa Guillermina plant has been backed by the Environment Secretary and respects the essence of the Forests Law. The project will include the afforestation of 2000 hectares.

Biomass can be classified as two different types: wet, which includes agricultural and livestock waste as well as food industry waste and black waters; and dry, for instance energy, agriculture and forest, and industrial waste.

Biomass energy has interesting prospects in other areas of the continent, such as Mexico and Central America. Research from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) shows that these countries have good renewable energy potential, as much as 25 times bigger than their current capacity. Biomass could play a key role in achieving that goal. Mexico’s larger territory gives the country more opportunities to grow, but its Central American neighbors also have a good chance.

That is the case with Guatemala, a country whose biodiversity and natural resources make it a perfect place to build biomass plants. A report by Revista Eólica y del Vehículo Eléctrico said over 20 per cent of the national energy matrix could be obtained from biomass devices. And in Honduras a combination of biomass, solar photovoltaics, hydropower and wind plants could potentially expand the country’s power production by up to 60 times its current capacity.

Brazil is not to be forgotten when talking about Latin America’s renewable energy potential, and the country has important biomass projects in the works. In mid-2014 the Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency (Aneel), the state-owned company in charge of the energy market, announced that the nation held 480 biomass plants with overall capacity of 11,571 MW, or 8.4 per cent of the country’s energy matrix.

The sugar cane industry largey explains the growth of this alternative energy source. Figures from UNICA, the sugar cane industry’s trade body, said that in 2013, 57 per cent of electricity produced from biomass was used for self-consumption in the sector’s facilities, while 43 per cent was transmitted to the National Interconnected System (SIN).

At the beginning of February 2015 it was announced that the Companhia Energetica de Sao Paulo (Cesp), a firm operating in the hydropower market, aims to enter the biomass sector. Seenews reported that Cesp could form joint ventures to produce electricity through the combustion of sugar cane bagasse. The state of Sao Paulo’s government will grant tax incentives to sugar cane farmers, and also to producers of other materials suitable for use as biofuels, such as sorghum and maize. These benefits highlight the authorities’ confidence in the power of biomass as a useful alternative to conventional energy sources.