produced from plants and animal-based organic materials, such as crops, woody materials, and animal manure. As humanity searches for solutions to our energy challenges, it is likely that biomass energy will play an increasing role in transitioning toward a fossil fuel-free energy future. However, as with every other energy resource, there are advantages and disadvantages to the production and use of biomass energy.
Advantages of biomass energy
Biomass energy is renewable
Unlike fossil fuels which are finite, we can continue to grow more plants and produce other renewable biological resources that are used for biomass energy.
Biomass energy can be a clean energy resource
Although some carbon emissions are released as the biomass energy is burned, biomass energy feedstocks* such as switchgrass and algae capture carbon dioxide during their growth cycles, making them potentially carbon neutral sources of fuel. In contrast, fossil fuels never capture carbon emissions, but instead release carbon when burned.
Reduction of the need for landfill space
Biomass energy production can reduce the need for landfills in communities and reduce overall methane emissions. When municipal solid waste is used to produce energy instead of storing that waste in landfills (also known as “waste-to-energy”), it reduces the requirements for landfill space and eliminates the potential for toxic landfill leaks. By reducing the need for additional landfills, also eliminate the methane gas (a potent greenhouse gas) that would have been emitted by those landfills.
Variety of organic sources
Unlike fossil fuels, biomass can be used to produce fuel from a variety of organic sources that are widely available. Examples of biomass that can be used to produce fuel include corn, soy, switchgrass and other native prairie grasses, industrial hemp**, algae, solid waste, wood chips, animal manure, sewage, and mulch.
Biomass energy can be produced domestically, reducing the need to rely upon imported foreign oil.
Disadvantages of biomass energy
Use of arable land
The production of some biomass energy crops requires arable land that could otherwise be used for food production. In a world with increasing natural resource scarcities of food, water, and other basic human necessities, the use of our world’s suitable arable land and other natural resources may need to be dedicated to producing sufficient food to feed a hungry human population.
Decline of sustainable behavior
In the case of waste-to-energy, the development of permanent processing facilities in particular communities might discourage overall recycling participation rates or the development of other forms of clean energy, such as wind and solar energy.
Some biomass feedstocks, such as corn and soybeans, require large amounts of energy to grow and process. This results in very little to no net gain in energy resources. These biomass feedstocks also require energy to transport to where they will be processed and made into fuel.
The use of trees as a biomass energy feedstock can lead to widespread deforestation. This is particularly concerning, as the need for forests and their important role in carbon sequestration in a world of climate change cannot be understated. We need to be be planting forests, not cutting them down for fuel.
Some biomass energy resources can produce pollutants when burned, such as nitrous oxide, soot, ash, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide¹.
Some biomass energy feedstocks are seasonal.
The use of biomass as an energy resource is sure to become more prominent in our world as we transition away from fossil fuels. However, the advantages and disadvantages, and therefore, the sustainability, of biomass energy are largely dependent upon which type of biomass is being utilized. The biomass feedstocks that we choose to rely upon should not compete with food production, should work in concert with the restoration of forests and other natural ecosystems, and should not place an unsustainable demand on natural resources.
* “A feedstock is defined as any renewable, biological material that can be used directly as a fuel, or converted to another form of fuel or energy product.” -U.S. Department of Energy ** Where permissible.