Biomass energy comes from organic materials, such as plants, so that is why it receives classification as a renewable source of energy. The sun stores resources into these materials thanks to photosynthesis. When we burn these items, then the chemical energy kept in the biomass releases as heat. It can burn directly or get converted into liquid fuels, biogas, and other products.
Several different organic materials are useful for biomass energy today. We typically use wood and processing wastes from it to provide warmth to buildings, produce process heat for industrial purposes, or generate electricity. We also use agricultural crops and their waste items to burn as fuels or to create liquid biofuel. Food, yard, and compost waste are useful commodities, as is animal manure or even human sewage.
We can burn solid biomass to produce heat directly. It can go through a conversion process to create other fuels that we can burn for energy. Ethanol is an example of turning an agricultural commodity into usable fuel.
About 5% of the energy supply of the United States comes from this resource, which is why an evaluation of these biomass energy advantages and disadvantages is helpful.
List of the Advantages of Biomass Energy
1. Biomass energy is a renewable resource.
We can use any organic material to produce biomass energy. That’s why the emphasis is on garbage, manure, and dead plants. Even though it takes time to renew the foundation of plant materials each year, our daily activities can supplement the materials needed to create the electricity or fuels we require to manage our responsibilities. Most sources of biomass can regenerate themselves within a few months, and several grass species can do so within a few weeks when the growing conditions are carefully managed.
2. It reduces our dependence on fossil fuel resources.
Since we can convert biomass energy into electricity and various fuels, the supplies we generate from this resource help to reduce fossil fuel dependencies. The finite nature of natural gas, crude oil, coal, and other raw materials make those resources a cause for concern in some circles. When we can transition more of society’s energy needs to this renewable option, then our ability to extend other commodities helps to ensure that future generations have access to what they need.
3. Biomass can be a carbon-neutral proposition for energy generation.
When we use combustion to generate energy from biomass, then it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What makes it a carbon-neutral proposition is the natural way that plants take carbon out of the atmosphere during the photosynthesis process. When we grow materials in a sustainable way, then the new growth will remove what gets released during electricity generation, refinement, or heating needs. It creates a careful balance where we get to replace everything that gets consumed.
4. It gives us a way to divert waste away from our landfills.
Waste accumulation is a matter of significant concern for most countries. The average person in the United States adds five pounds of trash into its landfills every day. That means the total generation of municipal solid waste in 2017 was over 267 million short tons that went into American landfills. Significant levels of trash go through a similar process in every developed country globally.
When we use biomass to generate electricity, then we can divert some of this waste into something that’s useful for society. If we can produce this resource sustainably, then we have an effective way to create fuel while promoting a healthier environment. California’s efforts to generate biomass energy already diverts about 10 million tons of low-value organic waste away from landfills.
5. Biomass energy has abundant availability.
The amount of potential we have with biomass energy is massive. We currently use corn and sugarcane to produce ethanol, a fuel that can act as a gasoline substitute. Biodiesel is a more eco-friendly option that the fossil fuel version that gets used each day. Some fields can produce four crops of grass annually that is useful as an energy-producing option. Then we have all of the trash and waste that gets produced by human activities in each country.
As consumption levels continue to rise around the world, the growing availability of animal and plant waste allows us to have more access to this energy generation resource.
6. We can make biofuels with low emissions profiles.
Biomass energy allows us to turn organic materials into a variety of different fuels that we can use each day. Some of them are relatively clean, including alcohol, ethanol, and methane. It can be an expensive and time-consuming process to generate resources that fit into this benefit, but these efforts are also a way to ensure our climate change activities start to reduce. Building refineries and production facilities that operate on the largest scale possible can make this energy resource more affordable to the average family.
7. Biomass crops can grow almost anywhere.
Since we can produce biomass-related crops almost anywhere on our planet, we can lower the transportation expenses of the industry by growing usable items near each facility. There are always costs to consider when combusting materials to generate power or fuel, but we can control them effectively when the processes occur near each processing facility. This benefit is the one key that can unlock the full potential of this renewable energy resource.
8. We can use biomass energy in several different ways.
The United States and Brazil dedicate significant resources to produce biomass energy in the form of ethanol. We can use it to create electricity or produce heating gas that lets us have comfortable indoor environments during each season. Some manufacturers can turn the organic materials into biochemicals, biodiesel, and similar fuels. We can take waste products like sawdust, turn them into pellets, and then combust them to generate basic heat. The amount of versatility available from the core products of this industry makes it one of the most useful energy items we can use right now.
9. Biomass energy creates more energy independence around the world.
The reliance on oil throughout the world creates an economic advantage for producers and disadvantages for consumers. About one-fifth of the fossil fuels we use today go directly toward transportation needs. That means each country must purchase imports to meet their needs, creating high levels of wealth that go directly to the countries that have the capabilities of shipping crude oil, natural gas, and similar resources.
Having access to biomass energy gives each country more energy independence. The cost savings that can become available from fewer imports can turn this renewable resource into a cost-neutral and carbon-neutral proposition that can help economies just as readily as the environment.
List of the Disadvantages of Biomass Energy
1. The efficiency rate of entry-level biomass is extremely low.
The stoves that people use to generate energy with biomass products are inefficient. If you purchase a catalytic stove in the United States or Europe, then the best efficient rates hover around 75%. Designs that are non-catalytic have an assigned efficiency of 63%. The best option in this category is the pellet stove, which can achieve an 80% rating with some models.
When we look at the developing world’s use of biomass, it’s a very different story that gets told. Some of the efficiency rates can be as low as 10%, which means 90% of the energy produced from the organic materials gets lost. Most people in this situation use it for cooking and heating purposes, with household adoption rates as high as 89% in some African countries.
2. Health issues can develop with widespread biomass use.
When we burn wood and organic waste indoors, then the products typically produce more smoke than heat. That’s why a fireplace or wood stove has a chimney or some other method of venting. The smoke must go somewhere, which means we release it outside. Constant exposure to this byproduct of heat or energy product creates a smoke inhalation hazard that can create severe health problems over time. Several lung diseases are directly associated with the use of biomass energy activities.
3. Biomass energy creates environmental issues for us to manage.
The easiest way to produce biomass energy in the developing world is to cut down a tree. This activity occurs in an unregulated manner, and it often happens without an effort at reforestation being made to replace the lost forests. It is a disadvantage that eventually leads to widespread deforestation.
When the trees and forest undergrowth aren’t present, then the bare soil is subjected to more erosion-related activities from the wind and water. Most of this activity occurs in tropical climates where many of the nutrients are locked in the organic materials instead of the soil. That deprives the ecosystem of the nutrients it requires to provide a healthy foundation.
4. Losing organic material can add to the problem of global warming.
Forests, grasslands, and similar biomes all act as carbon sinks for our planet. The photosynthesis process helps to prevent severe climate change incidents. This process works most effectively within the tropical forests of our planet. If we lose these trees or reduce the capacity of a biome, then the ability to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere begins to disappear. That means the efforts to create biomass energy create a short-term gain economically while producing a long-term debt that future generations must manage.
Deforestation also results in the loss of biodiversity that strengthens our global ecosystem. We are just as dependent on the forests as they are on us, so upsetting the balance causes harm when we fail to use a sustainable approach.
5. Biomass energy may not capture carbon dioxide efficiently.
We describe biomass energy as a renewable resource because each new crop that grows captures CO2 through photosynthesis. Some plants capture this harmful greenhouse gas in special ways to create a massive storage potential. If we burn these plants to produce energy while replacing them with crops that have a lower storage capacity, then the results are similar to what happens when we use fossil fuels. That’s why using tree-based materials to generate electricity and fuel creates so many problems for the environment.
6. Organic materials are only seasonal.
Biomass energy is useful when a year-round supply is available. Unless a country exists in a tropical climate, then this outcome isn’t possible. Limited growing seasons occur in the north, making the availability of new organic material less possible during the winter. Some regions can supplement their supplies with animal waste and trash, but it isn’t a guarantee that these items are available.
That means the most biomass energy resources tend to belong to the warmer climates where more agricultural activities become possible. Multiple crop cycles generate more benefits than what a single growing season can provide.
7. Even with best practices in place, biomass might increase CO2 emissions.
When the U.S. government reviewed the environmental changes that happened when farmers converted from food-based corn crops to fuel-based alternatives, the emissions profile of this activity changes. Scientists expected to see a 20% reduction in the carbon dioxide released from these agricultural efforts, but the number of emissions actually doubled. The impact of this change could last for more than a century.
Brazil and other countries use sugarcane, sawgrass, and other organic materials with faster growing cycles than corn to produce biomass energy. Even their methods can still increase localized greenhouse gas emissions by over 50%.
8. It eliminates the use of arable land for food production.
One of the primary options for the biomass energy production industry in the United States is ethanol from corn production. American farmers produce about 5 billion bushels each year that gets turned into this useful biofuel. That means about 10% of our croplands are put to use to create usable biomass. Almost 40% goes toward feed products intended for livestock and other animals, which leaves the remainder for the rest of us.
If cash crops for energy production are worth more than what we produce for food, then more farmers will consider converting their fields. Our desire for renewable energy in this sector can lead to less food production. Even if we maintain the same levels, the ethical question of using farmland for fuel instead of food must be asked since 1 in 7 people around the world go hungry regularly.
9. Biomass energy lacks scalability.
We can only produce biomass energy at a specific ratio because of the organic materials used to create it. Adding more materials won’t alter this fact. You’ll just increase the output received, like when you add a couple of logs to the fire in your wood stove. If we want to create something that meets the needs of an entire nation, then new furnaces and boilers must get added to a biomass facility so that additional electricity generation becomes possible. That’s the reason why this resource is one of the least cost-effective ways to produce usable energy right now.
10. We must expend additional energy resources to transport biomass.
Heavy feedstocks make up the bulk of today’s biomass energy fuels. We must transport these items from their croplands or natural habits to a facility for combustion. If the environmental costs of this disadvantage get added into the overall expenses in place, then the greenhouse gas emissions could be worse with this renewable resource than it is when we burn a cleaner fossil fuel like natural gas.
When the particulate matter from organic combustion comes into play, then the environmental risks of a biomass facility become similar to those of coal-fired power plants.
11. Biomass energy requires significant water resources to be usable.
When we produce biofuels from biomass products, then it takes up to 20,000 liters of fluid to produce a single liter of usable fuel. The water footprint of this renewable resource is much higher than it is for fossil fuels. We’re already using 54% of the accessible runoff and 26% of evapotranspiration from our ecosystems to meet our water needs. If we don’t take care of this component of our ecosystem, then it may become difficult for future generations to have access to the water they need.
12. New biomass energy installations are surprisingly expensive.
The cost of biomass energy can be as high as $4,400 per kilowatt-hour installed. This rate is the second-highest in the market today, with only solar more expensive right now. The average utility rate for electricity in the United States is $0.1331 per kilowatt-hour, but it is as high as $0.2254 in Alaska and $0.3276 in Hawaii. Natural gas provides electricity for 75% less, while coal-fired power plants operate at a 50% cost reduction.
That means we can install nuclear power or off-shore wind facilities at a lower environmental cost for the same price. The only advantage that biomass provides when looking at this specific disadvantage is the option to reduce accumulated waste levels.
13. Biofuels don’t produce the same energy levels as refined fossil fuels.
The fuel efficiency rates of biofuels like ethanol are up to 33% less than when we use refined gasoline. That means we must use more of it to create the results we need, leading to higher emissions levels over time. Even a product like biodiesel is 10% less efficient than the standard fuel that gets used by many in the shipping industry. When we combine the issues with this disadvantage with the potential for forest clear-cutting and other mismanagement issues, the impact on the environment can be significantly worse than if we were to use fossil fuels alone.
14. Biomass energy still creates waste products that can harm the environment.
The waste products that come from biomass can sometimes get recycled to become something usable once again. It releases a significant amount of pollutants to create technologies that are just as dirty as coal-fired power plants. The communities and regions where these facilities are available create more particulates and nitrogen oxides. Although there is less mercury and sulfur, it isn’t always fair to say that this resource is a green energy solution.
When we look at the positives of biomass energy, this renewable resource seems like a viable alternative to the dirtier fossil fuels that we burn each day. It can be a carbon-neutral option when we use sustainable methods to produce new crops, but the only way to guarantee this outcome is to implement global regulations. With over 200 governments having different agendas to pursue, the reality of these benefits isn’t always feasible.
Carbon-capture technologies and new innovations can help us to divert more waste from our landfills without a significant release of particulates or greenhouse gases.
The advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy attempt to turn our waste generation activities into a positive situation. Fossil fuels might not be with us forever, which is why this alternative fuel must receive more developmental attention to make it a truly renewable resource for future generations.
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.