Biomass energy sounds good in name and theory, but just how green is it? Well, while biomass energy is renewable and is definitely better than nuclear energy, but it’s nowhere near as clean or efficient as solar or wind energy.
However, let’s look at the top pros and cons of biomass energy to better understand its impact, reliability, and future viability.
Let’s start with the positive aspects of biomass energy.
1. Biomass Energy is Renewable
Biomass is widely available and has little to no chance of running out because organic matter is all around us. For those who aren’t quite sure how Biomass works, you can watch this great video from Howarth Timber that simplifies the process:
After watching a quick visual, answering the question, “What are the pros and cons of biomass energy?” becomes much easier.
2. Using Biomass Waste to Create Energy Clears Up Landfills
When we use waste to create energy, less waste goes to the landfill, which is good for the environment and opens up more land to be used by people. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration:
“In 2018, about 12% of the 292 million tons of MSW produced in the United States was burned in waste-to-energy plants.”
That said, finding ways to reuse materials will always be an essential aspect of sustainability.
3. Biomass Energy is Reliable
You can produce biomass energy at any time. This is an advantage over wind or solar energy because if it’s not windy or sunny, you’re stuck.
As long as there is biomass available, you can produce energy.
4. Biomass Energy is Convenient for People To Use and Allows For Independence
Many people use biomass energy in developing countries, especially for heating and cooking.
Biomass energy allows people, especially those who live in rural areas, independence because you can source it locally and produce it domestically, whereas fossil fuels may be harder to access. When we’re looking for global energy solutions, this positive aspect within biomass energy pros and cons can’t be overlooked.
5. Biomass Energy is Versatile
Another advantage of biomass energy is that you can use it for many things, including heat production, fuel for automobiles, and electricity production (2).
When you research “biomass energy pros and cons,” these are the top downsides that you should know.
1. Burning Biomass for Energy Creates Pollution and Worsens Climate Change
Replacing wood for coal isn’t measuring up. When you burn biomass, it releases carbon dioxide that persists in the atmosphere for a long time. Climate Interactive researchers had this to say:
…a 2018 study from our team reveals that displacing coal with wood for power generation can make climate change worse for many decades or more.
Some biomass plants have adapted and use BECCS (Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage) technology to catch the carbon released during the burning process so it doesn’t get released into the atmosphere.
2. Biomass Energy Can Lead to Deforestation
Unsustainably cultivating biomass or “logging” is devastating U.S. forests (4).
When we cut down trees, they cannot remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Not to mention, the plants and animals in the deforested area suffer.
Of course, there are always replanting efforts such as One Tree Planted, but it takes years for a tree to mature, and we also cut down trees faster than we replace them.
3. Growing Crops for Biomass Energy Takes Up A Lot of Land
There is a massive debate as to whether we should use more farmland for fuel or food. Many people think that growing crops to be burnt or energy is detrimental to the food supply.
After all, there is only so much land available, and in a world where millions are starving, we should be more strategic.
To be frank, if biomass energy were as clean or as efficient as solar or wind energy, I might be singing a different tune. However, it’s just not worth the land it’s taking up. Land that we could use to feed people.
4. Biomass Energy is Expensive to Produce in Mass
The plants that convert biomass into energy are not only expensive to build but also to run. Compared to other types of renewable energy, it is very costly. With solar, for example, you just need a panel and the sun. That’s it.
Critics have also called out the amount of fossil fuels burned to transport the biomass to the plant in big stinky trucks.
5. Biomass Energy Not Efficient As It Could be
Given the amount of time, land, money, and resources that go into biomass energy production, it doesn’t seem to be delivering a whole lot. And it’s nowhere near as efficient as fossil fuels.
This is probably because it is under-researched. We still need to develop new technologies to make biomass more efficient, that is, if we desire to use it on a large scale.
6. Biomass Energy Requires Water
You need a lot of water to produce biomass energy because plants require lots of water to survive. I could think of a thousand better ways to use water, including a superior form of renewable energy.
What Are Sources For Biomass Energy?
You can source energy from biomass such as trees or plants, agricultural waste, wood, animal waste, crops, etc. Since biomass energy comes from burning carbon dioxide-infused organic materials, there’s a wide range of mediums to choose from. The future viability will depend on efficiency, as with all potential energy sources.
If We Planted Enough Trees, Could It Slow Climate Change?
While more trees can definitely help us slow climate change, they won’t reverse it on their own and are certainly not a substitute for decreasing fossil fuel emissions.
Was Biomass Energy Ever a Dominant Form of Energy in the United States?
Yes, biomass energy was a dominant form of energy in the United States. Throughout most of human history, biomass from plants was the main source of energy production.
Then, in the early 1800s and early 1900s, the United States began to shift from biomass to fossil fuels (5). With this switch, naturally, big questions like, “How long can we use fossil fuels for?” and “Is nuclear power renewable?” are hot topics for debate.
- Biomass explained. Retrieved from: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/waste-to-energy.php
- “Bioenergy Basics.” Retrieved from: www.energy.gov/eere/bioenergy/bioenergy-basics.
- Research: Using wood instead of coal for electricity worsens climate change. Retrieved from: https://www.climateinteractive.org/programs/other-research/research-using-wood-instead-of-coal-for-electricity-worsens-climate-change/
- Natural Resources Defense Council, 2019, Global Markets for Biomass Energy Are Devastating U.S. Forests, Retrieved from: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/global-markets-biomass-energy-06172019.pdf.
- What is energy? Retrieved from: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/what-is-energy/sources-of-energy.php