Last Updated on March 17, 2021 by Filip Poutintsev
Biomass is organic, meaning it is made of material that comes from living organisms, such as plants and animals. The most common biomass materials used for energy are plants, wood, and waste.
Biomass in the form of dead plants, trees, grass, leaves, crops, manure, garbage, animal waste can be a great source of alternative fuels that can be used to replace fossil fuels. Plants make use of a process called photosynthesis that converts energy from the sun into chemical energy.
This energy gets transferred to animals when they eat plants. When plants and animal waste are burned, the carbon dioxide and waste stored inside them are released back into the atmosphere.
This is why biomass energy is said to be renewable. Organic materials used to produce biomass energy include forest residues (branches, dead trees, and tree stamps), wood chips, yard clippings, and municipal solid waste. This means that wood remains the largest source of biomass energy.
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Some Advantages of Biomass Are
1. Biomass is a Renewable Resource
Biomass is an abundant resource: organic matter surrounds us, from forests and croplands to waste and landfills. All biomass originally gets its energy from the sun. Because of photosynthesis, biomass resources regrow in a relatively short time span compared to fossil fuel resources that take hundreds of millions of years to replenish. Therefore, we won’t run out of biomass to use for energy production.
2. Biomass helps Reduce Waste
Landfills have a number of negative impacts on the environment, including contamination of nearby air, soil and water, and the emission of greenhouse gases.
Many products that end up in landfills are hazardous and toxic; depending on how these materials are managed, they can end up contaminating our land, air, and water, which eventually leads to adverse environmental and human health consequences.
Additionally, landfills are a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere. When organic matter in landfills decomposes, it emits methane–one of the most potent greenhouse gases–as well as carbon dioxide and other compounds.
Diverting waste to biomass energy plants instead of landfills not only helps reduce the size of landfills and alleviates these risks, but also takes materials that would otherwise sit around and uses them productively.
3. Biomass is a Reliable Source of Electricity
In many instances, biomass energy plants are dispatchable, meaning they can easily be turned on or off. This allows electricity grid operators to use electricity from these plants during times of peak demand.
Bio-energy is not intermittent or variable unlike other sources of renewable energy like solar and wind: the sun isn’t always shining, and the wind isn’t always blowing. In the absence of storage technologies, you can’t always use solar or wind energy when you need it.
In comparison, while the availability of some biomass resources may be susceptible to seasonality, biomass energy plants can always turn on to provide power, regardless of the weather outside.
However, like every other thing on earth, Biomass also has some limitations.
Some Disadvantages of Biomass Are
Outside of the upfront costs to get the plants up and running, there are additional costs associated with extracting, transporting, and storing biomass prior to electricity generation.
This is an added cost that other renewable technologies don’t need to account for, seeing as they rely on free, on-site resources (tides, sunshine, wind, etc.) for fuel. Costs can vary widely from biomass energy plant to biomass energy plant, and in some cases, bio-energy has the potential to be cost-competitive with solar and wind.
Overall costs largely depend on the type of biomass and how it’s converted to electricity. That said, even though biomass is often more expensive than alternative renewable energy options, the most expensive types of bio-energy are still on-par with or cheaper than fossil fuels: bio-energy does not require drilling into the earth, which carries a high capital (and environmental) cost.
2. Space Requirements
Biomass energy plants require quite a bit of space, limiting the areas you can place a plant. Oftentimes, companies also need to place these plants in close proximity to their source of biomass to cut down on transportation and storage costs.
Additional space may also be necessary to grow the organic matter itself; if power companies are growing crops or trees for the sole purpose of bio-energy, rather than using agricultural waste, this contributes to a larger land footprint per unit of electricity production.
3. Adverse Environmental Impacts
Like many other forms of energy, producing electricity from biomass can come with a number of environmental downsides.
For one, depending on the type of biomass used to generate electricity, unsustainable bio-energy practices can result in deforestation over time.
Companies that clear-cut forests to provide material for biomass energy plants harm the natural environment and disrupt the habitats of plants and animals in the process.
Clearing plants and organic material from the earth can also impact the health of surrounding soil that requires biomass for compost and fertilization.
Growing crops for the sole purpose of bio-energy resources also requires a good amount of water: all plants need water to grow, and continuous irrigation of these resources can make an area more vulnerable to drought.
Additionally, while oftentimes viewed as an environmentally-friendly alternative to coal, producing electricity from biomass does release pollutants into the air, such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and more. In some cases, the emissions and pollutants from biomass can be worse than those from fossil fuel resources.
These pollutants have adverse impacts on environmental and human health. The environmental and health consequences of bio-energy can be minimized through a number of efforts, including more sustainable land-use practices, re-planting efforts, and technological innovation.
4. It is Not Entirely Clean
While biomass is carbon neutral, the use of animal and human waste escalates the amount of methane gases, which are also damaging to the environment. Additionally, the pollution created from burning wood and other natural materials can be considered just as bad as that resulting from burning coal and other types of energy resources.