to transition to a renewable energy future, humanity is looking to alternative energy sources to power our way of life. As it will be very challenging to find a single alternative energy source replacement that can meet all of our many energy needs in the same fashion as fossil fuels have done, the future of our energy supply will likely include a variety of alternative energy sources. Biomass energy is likely to be one of them.
Did you know?
Biomass energy is a form of renewable energy. Plants, for instance, can be regrown to provide a renewable source of biomass for energy.
Biomass energy has been used by humans for most of our history on the Earth, with the burning of wood and other biological materials for heat and cooking purposes.
Many different sources of biomass can be used for energy, including woody materials such as dead trees, branches, wood chips, and tree stumps, yard clippings, hemp, sorghum, sugarcane, bamboo, agricultural waste, human waste, switchgrass and municipal solid waste.
Bioenergy currently meets about 10% of human energy needs around the world¹.
Ethanol is produced through the fermentation of biomass that is high in carbohydrates, such as sugarcane, wheat, or corn.
As of 2012, Brazil and the United States were the largest producers of ethanol and biodiesel in the world².
Algae biomass can be used for energy. Algal-based fuels can be produced five to ten times faster than many forms of land-based agriculture like corn and soy. Biofuels such as ethanol, butanol, methane, biodiesel and hydrogen can all be produced through the fermentation of algae.
When approached sustainably, biomass energy from plants has the potential to be carbon-neutral. This is because the plants that are used for biomass energy have stored carbon during their lifecycles. Although this biomass releases some carbon when it is burned as fuel, there is the sequestration of carbon as a new biomass crop is grown. Fossil fuels do not offer this advantage of re-absorbing carbon, they only release it.
Penn State University researchers have produced a human waste-powered generator. It can produce 51 kilowatts of energy from the waste of 100,000 people³.
The largest biomass power station in the world in Finland produces a maximum of 265 MW of power, and produces heat for the nearby town of Jakobstad⁴.
Biomass as an energy source is expected to increase as the human population increases and energy demand increases, and as fossil fuels are depleted. This is especially expected to occur in developing countries.
Biomass energy does not produce sulfur or mercury emissions, and produces much less nitrogen than coal does. This means that biomass energy reduces acid rain, smog and other pollutants in the air when compared to coal⁵.
Unlike traditional row crops like corn and soy, switchgrass and other sustainably managed energy crops can reduce erosion, reduce nitrogen runoff into waterways, and increase the total amount of carbon in the soil⁵.
Aggressive development of advanced sustainable biomass energy and other biofuels could help the U.S. and other countries to produce the equivalent of fuel that is imported from the Persian Gulf. By making automobiles more fuel-efficient and by increasing the use of plug-in hybrid vehicles, biofuels could potentially eliminate the need for gasoline⁵.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) developed a global sustainability standard for biomass in 2011. This standard is a rigorously-tested independent certification that incorporates the sustainability of environmental, cultural, and social elements of the biomass energy production process⁵.
The cost of biomass energy could be reduced to five cents per kilowatt hour as high-tech gasification systems are improved⁵.
Farming developments will lead to innovative and sustainable growing methods for the production of biomass crops that increase yields, improve degraded soils, and protect ecosystems⁵.
Fast-growing tree species are being considered for biomass crop production, such as poplar and eucalyptus trees, as well as grasses such as switchgrass and alfalfa⁵.
Biomass can produce biogas fuel like methane that can be used to power and heat homes. Methane can be produced from biomass resources such as animal waste and landfills.