Hemp as an Energy Resource

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Image retrieved from truedemocracyparty.net on January 18th, 2014.

The application of industrial hemp with the greatest economic and social potential is also the use that has generated the most debate: its role in the multi-trillion-dollar energy industry.
While there is no question that hemp has been used as an energy source for centuries, current discussions center on its potential as an energy crop. To understand this situation, we must first consider the technical issues of using hemp as an energy resource, then take a closer look at its applications and economic scope.
Virtually any plant or organic matter (biomass) can be converted to fuel. Fuels derived from vegetable matter are known as biofuels. A University of Hawaii study reported in 1990 that biomass gasification could provide up to 90 percent of that state's energy needs. Biofuels have several critical advantages over fossil fuels:

  • Plants contain almost no sulfur or a number of the other contaminants which are commonly found in petroleum and cause air pollution when burned as fuel. Sulfur is a major component in acid rain.
  • Local agricultural crops can be converted into fuel. This makes energy more accessible, creates community jobs, and helps stimulate regional economic independence and autonomy.
  • Plants use a chemical process known as photosynthesis to convert water and carbon dioxide (CO2) into carbohydrates and oxygen. Since CO2 is produced by burning fuel, biomass production essentially recycles this gas, the primary cause of global warming, back into a fuel source and thereby cleans the atmosphere.
  • Harvesting plants does not require mining, strip-mining, or drilling and will not cause oil spills, so biomass production is better for the environment.
  • Annual farm crops are sustainable fuel sources; they are renewed or replenished by a new crop each year, rather that being steadily drained or depleted, as are fossil fuels.
  • It is possible to use agricultural, industrial, and municipal waste products as a raw material for fuel, thus reducing the solid waste that would otherwise present a disposal problem.

On the negative side of biofuels:

  • Annual crops are harvested seasonally rather that year round
  • Biomass is relatively bulky, which requires compaction and adds to storage and shipping costs.
  • Considerable capital would need to be invested in the development of pyrolysis and incineration facilities
  • Plants require additional processing to be concentrated to the condition of fossil fuels.

All in all, the benefits of biofuel greatly outweigh its disadvantages. And once the feed stock has been converted into fuel, it fits right into the entire currently existing infrastructure of distribution and use: tankers, freight cars, pipelines, storage facilities, and so on. As time goes by more and more of the energy industry is realizing that biomass is not just an option--it is the future.
Biomass can be processed into a wide variety of liquid, solid, and gaseous fuels, which in turn can be used to produce electricity. One aspect that makes biomass particularly attractive is that the necessary technology already exists. The existing infrastructure can process, store, and transport biofuels with relatively little adaptation or modification.
Reliance on biofuels actually produces a significant economic gain from an ecological point of view, because the exploration, drilling, extraction, processing, and transportation of fossil fuels have all been eliminated and the end product is a cleaner-burning fuel. The main reason that fossil fuels seem to have a price advantage is that the cost of repairing the environmental damage is ignored. Why? because the petrochemical energy producers know that it is cost-prohibitive to clean up after themselves, and their government allies simply let them off the hook. Similarly, the cost of military defense of oil fields is left out of the equation. At the same time, these companies get large tax breaks in the form of oil-depletion allowances on private holdings and subsidized access to publicly owned energy reserves. In short, the real costs are passed on to taxpayers without their knowledge or consent.
As the availability and quality of fossil fuels continues to deteriorate over the coming years, the price of energy will rise. As taxpayers learn more about the corporate welfare being doled out to multinational energy companies, they will demand that the government reduce or eliminate these handouts. The combined effect of these changes will be a more level field of competition, with greater economic and environmental incentives to switch over to biofuels. And that does not even take into consideration the health-care savings afforded by living in a cleaner environment.
Research into the potential for using enzymes to extract hydrogen from plant carbohydrates promises a very clean fuel (when hydrogen burns, its only by product is H2O--water!), but the process is expensive, and the technical infrastructure to use hydrogen effectively is not yet ready for mass production. Until that hurdle is cleared, the most practical approach seems to be to convert hemp and other biomass into conventional fuels.
In 1992, after studies at a pilot plant originally engineered for converting coal into gas, General Electric reported that biomass is a feasible fuel source. Researchers found that woody biomass had about half the heat value of an equal weight of coal and one-sixth that of natural gas, but they speculated that the real cost of electricity generated from biofuels would be lower due to savings in pollution-control systems. GE analyst Gene Kimura expressed concern that, due to concerns over global deforestation, biofuels would be politically viable only in conjunction with "some sort of forest management."
Why not leave the forests out of the equation and use an annual farm crop as a biofuel source? In that case, the best option is hemp.There are two major sources of biofuel to be derived from hemp: the seed oil and the stalk. We will consider each of these in turn.

pp. 27-30 The Great Book of Hemp by Rowan Robinson (1996)

hemp, ethanol, biofuels, biomass, pollution management,