Biomass energy involves the consumption of organic matter for the purposes of energy production. People use it all over the world for different purposes, but what are the pros and cons of biomass energy?
In this article, we’ll address the different advantages and disadvantages of using biomass over other energy sources.
Pros of Biomass
1. Renewable Energy Source
A key advantage of biomass is that it is a renewable energy source. This means that we can use it without it running out. Whilst this does require careful management of the different types of biomass (such as trees and food crops), it is fairly easy to get right.
2. Biomass Is Carbon Neutral
Next in our list of biomass pros and cons is the fact it is carbon neutral. This means that the net contribution of carbon dioxide from the use of biomass is effectively zero.
Biomass energy achieves this through a natural lifecycle. As trees, crops and other plants grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When biomass is eventually burnt or consumed in other ways, it emits the same amount of carbon that is absorbed whilst it was alive.
Carbon neutral energy sources are vital in helping to reduce the greenhouse effect which contributes towards climate change. By using more of these energy sources, we will reduce the effect that our energy needs are having on the earth.
3. Reduces Fossil Fuel Consumption
Unlike biomass, fossil fuels are not carbon neutral. Each and every day, we extract and burn vast quantities of traditional fuel sources (such as coal and oil) to meet our growing energy demands. This in itself has a number of disadvantages, including the following:
- Pollution is created
- Fossil fuel reserves are consumed
- Mining can be dangerous
As we can see from the above, it is better for us to make use of natural energy sources wherever possible. By using biomass as an alternative to coal, oil, and natural gas, we are helping to create a cleaner environment whilst reserving existing supplies of fossil fuels for future generations.
4. Reduces Waste
Biomass energy doesn’t just come from natural sources such as plants, it can also be found in other ways.
Whilst still technically a natural process, biomass can come from both animal and human waste products. This can include sewage and even used animal bedding. These products would normally be left to decompose, treated with chemicals, or used as fertilizer.
Biomass can also come from landfill. Each and every day, people all over the world throw away thousands of tonnes of rubbish which can include significant levels of organic matter (such as food waste.) As this is left to rot in a landfill site, methane is produced which can be tapped and stored for later use as biogas.
When we use the above waste products for biomass energy production, we are making use of a product that is already there and thus avoiding waste.
5. Widely Available
When compared to traditional sources of energy such as coal, oil, and gas, biomass is far more readily available. Tress, crops, and other plants are able to grow in many parts of the world, making bioenergy accessible to much of the earth’s population.
The wide availability of biomass is a key benefit in helping the world to meet growing energy demands. This can also help to increase energy security and reduce the possibility of conflict arising over the control of fossil fuels.
6. Biomass Has Many Uses
Another of the key advantages of biomass energy is that it has a number of different uses. This makes it far more flexible than other renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy.
There are three main uses of biomass, which include the following:
- Electricity generation
- Production of biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel
- Biogas production which we can use as a replacement for natural gas
As you can see from the above, biomass is highly versatile and is similar to oil in this regard.
7. Cost Effective
Biomass is a very cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels. Some experts even believe it to be around one third less expensive to coal and oil. This makes biomass much more affordable and could help to reduce global energy prices.
Cons of Biomass
1. Requires Lots of Space
There is no denying that biomass requires lots of space. Whilst biomass energy plants themselves do not consume much space, the sources of biomass do. Trees, crops, plants, and livestock all take up space. So too does the amount of organic waste we send to landfill sites.
We can consider this aspect to be one of the key disadvantages of biomass. Other energy sources typically require just a fraction of the space that bioenergy does.
With land mass coming at a premium in many parts of the world, this aspect is one of the key drawbacks of biomass and can help to increase energy costs in some places.
2. Biomass Does Create Pollution
Although biomass energy usage is considered carbon neutral, it does still create carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases such as methane.
As biomass may be grown in one part of the world and then burnt in another part of the world, this can lead to localized pollution and air quality issues. This has the potential to affect the health of millions of citizens all over the world.
The fact that biomass is carbon neutral makes it far more environmentally friendly than oil, coal, and natural gas. However, the fact it still needs to be burnt makes it less environmentally friendly than solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro energy.
3. Can Accelerate Deforestation
When the bioindustry fails to source biomass responsibly, this can lead to deforestation and land clearance on a massive scale. For biomass to be considered a source of renewable and sustainable energy, it needs to be managed in a way that ensures it is not depleted.
Some companies don’t care whether they replace chopped down trees with new ones. When this happens, deforestation occurs and biomass becomes unsustainable and loses its carbon neutral credentials.
Having said this, with proper planning and land management, biomass can indeed be a sustainable and carbon-neutral source of energy.
4. Food Crops Become Energy Crops
The term ‘energy crop’ refers to the farming of crops on an industrial scale for the purposes of bioenergy production. Whilst this alone is not a bad thing, it does mean that as we consume crops for energy purposes, we are diverting crops from the food chain.
With more and more food crops been used as ‘energy crops’, we are altering the balance between being able to feed ourselves and being able to generate energy.
5. Biomass Fuels Use Animal Fat
With veganism becoming a growing trend, the fact that some biofuels (mainly biodiesel) are made from animal fat becomes a major drawback. Many people do not feel comfortable consuming products that contain animals.
Although most of the animal fat used in biofuels is simply a waste product from the livestock industry, it is still a valid concern for many people all over the world.
So there we have a number of different pros and cons of biomass. There are many valid arguments on both side of the debate, but we can conclude that the use of bioenergy is much better than the use of fossil fuel alternatives. However, when it comes to comparing biomass against other renewable energy sources, the picture is less clear.