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What is Biomass Energy: Pros & Cons of this Resource

What is Biomass Energy? Is it an ideal renewable energy source alternative? Learn this and more in this comprehensive guide.

Biomass energy is as old as life itself. Our ancestors used it for cooking, lighting, and keeping warm during the night and cold seasons. This centuries-old energy source is still in use in our modern world, and it’s proving to be quite efficient.

In fact, until the mid-1800s, biomass was the primary source of energy in the US, covering the largest part of the country’s annual energy consumption.

In most developing countries, this resource remains an important everyday energy source.

However, despite the long term use of this energy option, it is only in recent times that people are considering it as part of the renewable energy alternatives. Fossil fuels have been the main source of energy in many countries across the globe.

But with rising concerns on climate change and global warming, the focus is now on finding alternative renewable energy sources with little to zero carbon emissions.

So, what is biomass energy, and does it have any benefits? Please keep reading to learn what it is, and the main biomass advantages and disadvantages.

Biomass Energy Definition

wood cuttings

To define biomass energy, you need to understand what biomass is all about.

Biomass simply means any matter or organic waste from living things or anything that was once living. In other words, it is the organic residue of animal and plants.

Some example of biomass waste includes crop waste, wood, yard waste, animal waste, sugarcane, and corn waste.

All these biomass materials contain a large amount of chemical energy absorbed from the sun during their lifetime. The chemical energy remains in the organic matter, making it a good source of bioenergy.

Wood Pellets

Typically biomass energy is a renewable source of energy derived from plants and animals. In 2019, biomass energy accounted for around 5% of the total energy consumption in the US.

The creation of biomass energy from biomass can be achieved through several means, which we will explain later in the article.

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How Does Biomass Energy Work?

As noted, the biomass waste contains some energy in them. The living organism – plants and animals – absorb chemical energy from the sun. When they die, they release it back to the environment.

For this chemical energy to become useful, you need to come up with ways of tapping it and generate biomass energy. There are three ways of creating energy from biomass.

First is through burning them. This option has been in use for decades, where people burn plant and animal waste to generate heat energy for cooking and keeping their houses warm.

Also, some factories use wood to dry materials before processing them.

A good example is in the tea factories found in many parts of the African continent.

Biofuels are the next form of biomass energy. Here the biomass material undergoes a conversion process to generate liquid or gas fuels.

Biodiesel used in vehicles, and biogas used in homes, are good examples of biofuels.

The last way is the use of biomass to generate electricity. In this case, people burn biomass wastes to heat water that generates steam for spinning turbines. These turbines rotate on an electromagnetic field and generate an electric current.

In some places, people channel the steam to generate heat and warm rooms or heat water systems. That answers the question – how is biomass energy generated?

Types of biomass energy

Different processes used in tapping biomass energy results in different types of biomass energy. You can generate biomass energy in five forms. Namely:

  • Combustion

Combustion is the basic mean of tapping bioenergy. As the term suggests, it involves the burning of the biomass elements.

You can burn plant or animal wastes to generate heat energy for our homes or industrial heating.

Combustion is also useful in generating electricity through steam turbines. People have been using combustion to tap bioenergy for decades.

Biomass Gasification Process
Image source: bioenergyconsult.com

Apart from burning the biomass, you can convert them into gaseous form. This process involves heating the elements in high temperatures and in the presence of air (oxygen) and water vapor.

The process leads to the generation of carbon monoxide and Syngas (a hydrogen-rich gas).

Syngas can then undergo combustion to generate energy.  It can be used for heating, powering diesel engines, as well as heating steam turbines to generate electricity.

  • Bio-digestion

Biogas Plant with Cows

This process is common where you expose organic waste to bacteria.

The process requires an anaerobic environment to generate flammable gas. It is the process used in creating biogas for home and factory uses.

  • Fermentation

Have you ever heard of flammable alcohols? If so, these substances are a product of fermented organic waste.

The manufacturers ferment biomass materials and make alcohol or ethanol. This ethanol is then used to run engines and can work as car fuel.

  • Pyrolysis

Unlike combustion, pyrolysis does not use oxygen in the degradation process. Here, the biomass waste is heated in a vacuum with temperatures ranging from 800 to 900°F without oxygen injection.

This process results in several substances, which include bio-oils, methane, charcoal, and biochar. These elements become viable energy sources.

Notably, biochar is a crucial product used for reducing carbon dioxide levels in the environment, as well as a form of fertilizer.

Biomass Energy Pros and Cons

Biomass energy

Like other energy sources, biomass energy has its share of advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of them:

Benefits of Biomass Energy

  • A Renewable Energy Source

Bioenergy is a renewable source of energy. You use organic matter to generate biomass energy. This matter production is infinite. The materials for generating this type of energy will always be available as long as there is life on earth.

Also, even if the biomass matter can diminish, it is possible to recreate them in your lifetime. Trees and plants are easy to replace and generate a new source of organic waste.

Due to this aspect, bioenergy is renewable compared to fossil, which takes centuries to form.

  • It is Carbon-neutral

As you know, carbon emissions are one major cause of climate change and global warming. The excess presence of carbon in the atmosphere tampers with the ozone layer, causing the greenhouse effect.

Fossil fuels used in automobiles and factories are the major sources of excess carbon emissions.

Though there is a debate on biomass energy carbon emission, it is a carbon-neutral energy source. It is a fact that biomass releases a large amount of carbon dioxide into the air during combustion. However, they play a central role in the carbon cycle.

Organic material from plants reduced carbon in the atmosphere in their lifecycle. So, unlike fossil fuel, organic material does not add extra carbon to the air.  Rather, they release the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed while alive.

This means that they maintain a balanced equation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has no hurtful effects.

  • High Reliability

Reliability is another benefit of biomass energy. Unlike other renewable energy sources, you can use biomass to generate energy any day, anytime. You do not get a power blackout when there is no sunlight like in solar energy.

Also, in the case of wind energy, when there is no wind to turn turbines, there is no power. However, with biomass as your energy source, you can serve your demand at any time. All you need is the availability of organic matter that you can use to generate electric energy.

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  • A Good Way to Reduce Waste

Biomass waste is a major issue across the globe. As you know, biomass generates a huge amount of waste each day.

Most of this waste is degradable, which means it can decay and get absorbed back to the soil as nutrients. However, this process means creating many landfills and lose the opportunity to take advantage of chemical energy in these organic wastes.

Biomass mass energy generation processes take a large amount of these wastes. By this, it reduces the need of having multiple landfills.

Also, it reduces the amount of going to landfills, leading to a clean and better environment.

Waste reduction also saves land set aside for landfills for other essential uses. The aspect provides a channel for re-using organic waste, which is key to the realization of sustainable goals.

  • Availability

Biomass is everywhere. No place on the planet that is completely free of organic materials and waste. And the amount is growing per day. With this abundance of organic waste, it is evident that you will never lack the necessary components for generating biomass energy.

Unlike fossil fuels, you can retain consistent supply and availability of biomass with good management. Hence, it is an abundant source of renewable energy.

  • Convertible to Different Energy Forms

biomass for electricity

As noted above, biomass energy can take different forms. You can burn organic materials to generate heat for cooking and warming the house.

The same combustion process can work in steam turbines to generate electric energy. Also, you can gasify organic materials to create gas energy.

Through processes like bio-digestion and fermentation, you can convert biomass into a liquid energy form like ethanol or bio-diesel. As such, you can use biomass energy in many forms compared with other renewable sources.

  • Reduce Fossil Fuel Dependency

No doubt, the world is moving from fossil fuel sources such as coal, gas, and oil to slow down the pace of climate change. This act is leaving a gap in the energy sector.

While renewable sources such as sun and wind are becoming the leading alternatives, their reliability is a setback. Here is where biomass energy is becoming a perfect option.

As noted, biomass can work in different forms to serve power generation needs. It can replace fossil fuels like diesel and gas. People can use biodiesels and gas to power their car engines.

Also, companies can use biomass feedstocks to power their factory engines. As such, this type of energy is becoming a good alternative to fossil fuels and powering the goal of curbing global warming.

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Cons of Biomass Energy

Even with the above benefits and advantages, biomass has a share of its disadvantages. Here are the main cons of biomass energy:

  • It is Expensive

The cost of biomass energy is the first setback towards the adoption of this form of renewable energy. Setting up and generating energy from organic materials is expensive.

You need to invest a huge amount of money in building a biomass energy plant. Also, transporting biomass materials for the plant is costly.

Unlike these renewable sources, its alternatives are affordable. You do not need to transport any material after setting up a wind or solar energy station. As well, no requirement to store materials for generating energy.

So, biomass energy is relatively expensive when compared to alternative renewable energy sources.

  • Contribute to Carbon Emission

Though dubbed carbon-neutral, biomass still contributes to carbon emission in the atmosphere. It is not zero-carbon like other renewable energy sources.

Again, the rate of release of this carbon is not equal to that of absorption. The rate of trees cut is higher than the number of ones replanted.

Apart from this, the biomass combustion process releases other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrogen. All these gases contribute to climate change and global warming.

  • Requires a Large Space

For you to set up a biomass energy factory, you need a large space. You require space to store organic materials to use in the production process.

Also, you require space to create a reliable source of biomass feedstocks.

For instance, many companies in this industry buy or lease land, where they grow trees and other plants for use in their power generation factories.

The need for large spaces limits the adoption of biomass as a source of energy.

  • Huge Impact on the Environment

In a race to curb climate change, the world is in a rush to adopt clean energy. For this reason, there is a high emphasis on turning to renewable sources of energy.

Solar and wind energy are among the leading sources under this category. While biomass energy falls in the renewable energy category, it is not part of the clean source list.

Production of this energy has a huge impact on the environment. First, to get the biomass feedstocks, cutting down of trees is not avoidable. This act leads to deforestation, given that the rate of cutting the trees is higher than the time they take to grow.

The act also impacts biodiversity and soil quality. Through the planting of mono-crops, you deprive essential nutrients in the soil.

This way, it affects land management and the sustainability of a clean and safe environment.

  • Cost Inefficient

Efficiency is another aspect to consider in a source of energy. A cost-efficient source should offer you a higher benefit than the price you pay for it.

When it comes to biomass energy production, it falls on the efficiency bar. You’ll need to use more energy than what you will eventually generate from the process. This aspect makes it an expensive and costly energy source.

However, new technologies are coming up that will possibly increase the efficiency level in biomass energy generation.

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How Can Biomass Energy Use Improve Water Quality?

Probably, you have heard that biomass energy can improve water quality. And, you’re probably wondering how is this possible?

The fact is that what you have heard is true. Biomass usage in energy production contributes to the improvement of water quality. It does so in the following ways:

biomass, clean water
  • Pollutants Reduction Through Filtering

When burning the biomass, it produces smoke that acts as a filter. This smoke filters all harmful pollutants in the air that would end up in the water sources.

Also, it kills any contaminants in the environment. This action helps in keeping water safe and clean for human and animal use.

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  • Lower Soil Erosion

Soil erosion is another problem that tampers with water quality. The need for biomass energy means that one has to replace the food crops with trees.

Planting trees removes the usual cultivation, removal, and replanting of crops. As in the case of crop farming, the idea of disturbing the soil tampers with the soil disposition, leading to soil erosion.

As the soil continues to erode, it affects the safety and state of the underground water table. So, with the replacement of crops with trees, you curb soil erosion and improve underground water quality.

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  • Reduce Sewage Deposition into the Water Bodies

As you know, some countries advocate for sewage treatment, but others neglect it. The untreated sewage contains harmful elements and impurities. All these elements end up in water bodies such as rivers, lakes, and oceans.

With biomass energy, you reduce the possibility of sewage deposition. Biomass energy production uses any form of organic waste, which includes those from plants and animals.

For instance, animal waste is a component of biogas production.

By utilizing sewage in energy production, there are lower chances of it ending in the water bodies. This way, it improves the quality of water in these bodies.

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  • Low Fertilizer Usage

No doubt, growing food crops encourage the usage of fertilizers. These fertilizers have some chemicals such as nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium.

With the continued use of these fertilizers, there is a likelihood of the chemicals ending in water bodies. The rainwater or wind can sweep them to rivers and lakes, leading to water contamination.

As stated above, when you opt for biomass energy, you replace the food crops with trees that do not need any fertilizers.

So, with no fertilizer, no chemicals will end up in the water bodies, saving them from pollution.

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Verdict

Biomass energy is an abundant and reliable renewable source. Also, it is a crucial way of improving water quality and keeping it safe. You can consider it as a replacement for fossil fuel.

However, it has several shortcomings, such as huge costs and space requirements. Despite this, you can weigh the cost and benefits of this energy source and choose the right direction.

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