Biomass energy is created through the consumption of waste productions. The energy that is produced through combustion of these materials can then be used to rotate turbines that generate electricity. It is considered a renewable fuel source because waste products will always exist.
There are five types of biomass energy that produced today: garbage, wood, landfill, alcohol fuels, and crops.
Although it is considered a renewable energy resource, the pros and cons of biomass show that this process is not without controversy. Here are some of the key points to consider.
List of the Pros of Biomass Energy
1. It reduces our dependency on fossil fuel energy.
Biomass is created from the waste products of what we use every day. We can even incinerate garbage to create electricity. By diversifying our energy production capabilities, we create new opportunities to move away from the use of fossil fuels. We can grow new products, such as sugarcane, that produce excellent energy options without relying on coal and petroleum in future generations. We produce the power we need to maintain our current lifestyles.
2. It can be a carbon-neutral energy resource.
If we were to only burn garbage, animal waste, and similar products, then biomass would not be a friendly energy option for the environment. When we create biomass energy through fast-growing natural resources that trap carbon emissions for food, then we can create a carbon neutral experience. Although biomass releases carbon into the atmosphere, the plants grown to produce energy would take it back out.
3. It uses what we don’t need anyway.
What makes biomass such an attractive energy option is that it creates fuel from the products we already discard. That is why it can be such an effective renewable energy resource. From wood waste to urban garbage, we get the chance to reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills. Then we can supplement our energy with the combustion of it. There are plenty of assets already producing waste that could be turned into cheap energy right now.
4. It is widely available around the world.
Every human culture produces waste of some type. Even cultures that focus on sustainable living create waste products through crops, ground use, and other necessary tasks of life. We can even use dead grass or other forms of expired organic matter to create the energy we need to fuel life. As long as there are living organisms on our planet, there will be an opportunity to generate energy from them.
5. It is used in several different applications.
Biomass energy can create electricity. We can use it to create heating gas. We use items from the world of biomass to create biodiesel and biochemicals. We can even burn biomass directly, on an individual level, to create warmth. There is a high level off versatility found in this renewable energy option and we’re just starting to realize its full potential.
6. It helps to limit waste.
Since 1989, the State of California has been focused on reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills. Each year, more than 8 million tons of low-value wood products are diverted from landfills into biomass power generation efforts. By combusting this low-value wood, California has discovered that they also reduce the number of odors that emanate from landfills. They’ve reduced the number of volatile organic compounds that are present. It has even reduced the leachates which threaten the quality of local groundwater supplies.
7. It can be converted into methane or alcohol to limit emissions.
Biomass can be converted into different forms of fuel that limit the number of emissions which are generated when it is combusted. Although this process can be expensive and time-consuming, for a large-scale facility, it will also reduce the environmental impact that is created when power is being generated. Small-scale operations see higher costs here, which is why they tend to produce energy through non-converted fuels.
8. It can have transportation costs be reduced.
Because biomass can be grown almost anywhere, it can be produced near the facilities which produce energy. That saves on the fossil fuel costs of transportation to move supplies for consumption. There will always be a cost to pay here, especially when transporting heavy items to a biomass furnace, but the overall costs can be controlled quite effectively with sustainable planning practices around a facility.
List of the Cons of Biomass Energy
1. It produces waste products that can harm the environment.
Although the carbon production from biomass may be neutral with the correct fuel source, biomass still produces waste products. The most dangerous component of combustion is the particulate matter which is produced by biomass power generation. Several different compounds can be released into the atmosphere as well, some of which are not filtered away by new crops that are growing.
2. It can lead to clear-cutting.
When biomass is required to produce energy and waste products are unavailable, then virgin materials are used. Wood is the primary source of energy within the world of biomass. Forests are sometimes clear-cut to generate the power that is required for a community. If this practice occurs on a larger scale, then the effects of deforestation could be experienced. This practice also reduces the amount of renewability that is available with this energy generation technology.
3. It is not always as efficient as other fuels.
When ethanol products, the mileage obtained by drivers can be much less than if regular fuels were being used. When biodiesel is compared to regular diesel, then it receives about 33% less fuel efficiency than the traditional product. Part of the reason for that difference is that fact that a standard biodiesel contains about 10% less energy potential than regular diesel.
4. It takes up a lot of space.
Biomass combustion centers that operate on a commercial level require a certain amount of space to be effective. There needs to be fuel storage space within the facility, room for the furnace or combustor, and room for the controls and handling equipment. Even if all of these spatial requirements are met, there are still handling challenges and pre-processing issues that the industry faces which reduce the profitability of this renewable energy option.
5. It is an inefficient energy option.
The standard biomass combustion facility works at an efficiency level of 20% as an electricity-only system. When the facility is used as a combined heat and power system, these CHP facilities operate at an 80% efficiency rate.
6. It can be very expensive.
Biomass energy is one of the most expensive forms of electricity generation that we use today. At up to $4,400 per installed kilowatt, only solar energy options are consistently more expensive for power generation when evaluating the costs of biomass. Natural gas, in comparison, is just $1,150 per installed kilowatt. Coal energy is up to $2,300 per installed kilowatt. Off-shore wind and nuclear power are both equal in cost to biomass as well.
7. It requires access to water resources.
The availability of usable biomass is ultimately based on the amount of available water within a community. Although we all generate trash, not all items are suitable for biomass consumption. Burning plastics, for example, would do more harm than good to the air that we’re breathing. To make biomass become an option that does replicate the advantages of renewable energy solutions, there must be water access. Not every community can dedicate water toward the growth of fuel products.
8. It requires energy to transport.
Many of the biomass products that are used for energy are classified as heavy feedstocks. These items must be transported from where they are obtained to the biomass facility for combustion. When calculating the environmental costs of biomass, the process of product transportation is not always included in the figures. Because of this factor, some biomass facilities could be as harmful as coal-fired power plants to the environment.
9. It is difficult to scale.
Biomass energy is created with a specific ratio. When you combust a specific product, you’ll receive a specific outcome. If you add more materials to the combustion event, then you change the energy output that can be created. To build biomass to scale, multiple furnaces or boilers are required to produce the higher levels of electricity. That takes time to install, which limits the overall effectiveness of this technology.
10. It may convert crop space from food to energy production.
In the United States, ethanol production has increased the number of croplands that grow items which stay outside the regular food chain. About 36% of the world’s croplands are actually used for animal feed. 55% of the croplands are reserved for human consumption. About 9% goes toward biofuels. In the U.S., about 5 billion bushels of corn are used for biofuel each year.
11. It may increase greenhouse gas emissions.
In a 2008 review of environmental changes made from the conversion of food-grade corn crops to fuel-grade corn crops, the expectation was that the transition would generate a 20% savings in the number of greenhouse gases produced. Instead, researchers discovered that over a 30-year period, the number of emissions produced by growing corn for ethanol products would double the number of emissions and increase greenhouse gases for over 150 years. Even using switchgrass instead of corn for biofuel may still increase emissions by 50%.
12. It may reduce the quality of our soils over time.
For soils to be healthy, organic materials must be constantly introduced to it over time. Dead and decaying matter create the foundation of compost and fertilizer that is used to create new growth cycles. When we clear these materials away to generate supplies for the biomass energy industry, we’re eliminating the future potential of our soils. That process then reduces the amount of biomass we can use for energy production, which creates a decreasing ratio of energy we can use.
13. It may only have a seasonal supply.
Some countries avoid using biomass because they have a limited growing season. Even in the United States, growing regions in the north may have limited availability of biomass products during the winter months. That means biomass energy tends to be more effective in warmer climates where longer growing seasons are possible. You can create more energy from biomass when you have access to three crops per year instead of just one.
14. It may be ineffective at carbon capture.
Biomass is described as being renewable because the organic materials capture carbon as they are grown. Some plants capture carbon in unique ways, creating a storage potential that is quite high. When these materials are burned, the number of emissions released can take some time to recapture. That is why the practice of cutting down trees to create biomass energy is such a devastating decision.
These biomass pros and cons show us that there is a carbon neutral option while still using traditional technologies that have been developed over the last century. It is also an energy creation process that could be abused in ways that would be harmful to the planet. We are always going to generate waste. If we can create an energy reserve that is environmentally friendly from it, then pursuing biomass technologies is a path that makes sense.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.