Over the years, biomass has become a popular alternative energy source. In fact, biomass has a lot of potential to be a reliable source of renewable energy to power our society.
However, just like any energy resource, it comes with both its benefits and drawbacks.
We’re going to take a look at some key pros and cons of biomass energy, and what we can expect from biomass in the future.
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What is biomass energy?
Biomass is organic matter that comes from plants and animals. Organic waste such as wood, crop waste, animal waste, food waste, yard waste, and wood waste can all be used as sources of biomass energy.
Biomass can be used as a source of energy in two ways:
- Burning organic materials directly to create heat
- Converting biomass into a liquid biofuel that can then be burned for energy
Liquid biofuels, like biodiesel and biogas, are usually used as a fuel source to help meet transportation needs.
When biomass is burned directly, it is used to create steam, which turns a turbine to create electricity. In this article, we’ll focus mostly on biomass energy that creates electricity, not biofuels.
What are the pros and cons of biomass energy?
When looking at renewable energy sources, it’s important to look at all of their advantages and disadvantages. The following table outlines some of the biggest pros and cons of biomass energy:
|Abundant||Greenhouse gas emissions|
|Waste reduction||Environmental impact|
Advantages of biomass energy
Biomass energy is a renewable form of energy. As we use biomass materials, the supply of organic matter is diminishing. However, biomass can be regenerated quickly.
The fact that the biomass supply can be regenerated within a human lifetime is what makes biomass renewable.
Biomass is a reliable resource that can produce energy at any time. This is an advantage over other renewable energy resources, like wind and solar energy, which are intermittent.
When the wind isn’t blowing, no wind energy is being created by turbines. This means you can’t rely on wind to produce electricity whenever you need it. Unless, of course, the wind turbine is paired with battery storage.
Bioenergy power plants on the other hand, can be turned on and off at any time to meet energy demand. As long as there is biomass material available, electricity can be produced.
One of the biggest pros of biomass energy is that biomass is abundant. There is a growing amount of organic material being produced every day; you can find biomass nearly everywhere on the planet. This means that biomass won’t have the issue of limited availability, like fossil fuels do.
However, biomass does need to be responsibly managed in order to keep its abundant supply well-stocked. If we overuse the biomass that is available, we could run into availability issues while we wait to replenish the supply.
4. Waste reduction
One reason why biomass is so widely available is because the planet produces a lot of waste. Much of the waste we make is biodegradable, like food and plant waste. Instead of letting it become garbage, we could instead turn it into electricity!
Biomass energy takes waste that would otherwise sit in a landfill and makes it useful. This reduces the amount of waste that goes into landfills, which is better for the environment.
Plus, with less waste, we would need fewer and smaller landfills. This opens up more land that can be used by communities.
Carbon dioxide emissions are driving forces of climate change. Biomass is considered a carbon-neutral energy source because it fits into the natural carbon cycle, which traditional fossil fuels do not.
There is carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere when biomass energy is produced. But, this is the same amount of carbon dioxide that was absorbed by the plants during their lifecycle. So, when biomass is burned it does not release any ‘new’ carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Then, when new plants grow, they absorb carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere, and enter the cycle again.
Disadvantages of biomass energy
The production of biomass energy can come with a high price tag. First, constructing biomass energy plants requires a significant upfront investment. Then, the cost of harvesting and transporting biomass materials needs to be considered.
Plus, the organic material needs to be stored when it gets to the plant, which requires even more money. All of this makes biomass more expensive than other renewable options on the market.
Other renewable resources, like solar, don’t require these regular transportation and storage costs. Once a solar farm is built, there is no need to transport fuel or to store sunlight anywhere.
Even though biomass is more expensive than other renewables, it is still cheaper than fossil fuels. It costs much less to harvest biomass than it does to mine and extract fossil fuels.
2. Requires space
Biomass energy plants need quite a bit of space, mainly because of needing storage space. This limits where biomass energy plants can be built.
Some biomass plants also grow their own organic material. These plants may need large amounts of space to be able to grow crops or small forests. Biomass energy plants that grow their own fuel use more land-per-kilowatt hour of electricity produced.
3. Greenhouse gas emissions
As we said, biomass energy is carbon-neutral. However, biomass is still releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Other renewable sources are carbon-zero, which is much better when looking to tackle climate change. The less carbon dioxide being released – the better.
Carbon isn’t the only thing being released into the atmosphere from biomass energy. Burning wood and other biomass fuels releases many other greenhouse gases, most notably nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and methane.
Methane gas is a significant contributor to air pollution and climate change, as it traps about 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
4. Environmental impact
Although biomass energy is renewable, it isn’t the most environmentally friendly renewable option out there.
Relying on biomass energy could lead to devastating deforestation. As biomass plants require more materials, forests could get cut down at faster rates. It may also encourage monocultures of crops, which decreases biodiversity and strips soils of nutrients, making areas more susceptible to erosion.
Some biomass plants rely on algae, which tend to require large amounts of phosphorus fertilizers to produce the amounts needed for energy production. Overusing fertilizers can cause serious damage to local waterways and to wildlife, most notably birds.
Even using plants for biomass energy could increase the amount of fertilizers and pesticides being used and negatively impact the surrounding ecosystem.
Right now, biomass energy is not as efficient as other energy sources. In many cases, it takes more energy to burn the organic material than the process actually produces.
New technologies will need to emerge to make biomass more efficient if we want to use it on a large scale.
The future of biomass energy
There is no doubt that biomass energy is one of the few options for replacing fossil fuels.
If new technologies are developed to make the process more efficient, the use of biomass energy has serious potential. For now, it comes with a big set of drawbacks that make it difficult for it to be widely implemented.
If you’re looking for a way to use the power of renewable and clean energy, you should consider making the switch to solar. Not only do solar panels decrease your carbon footprint, they can eliminate your electric bill!
Use our solar panel calculator to find out how much you can save when you power your home with solar.
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