It is apparent that using non-renewable fossil fuels for energy is bad for the planet and bad for us humans who are living on the planet. Most people agree that we need to transition to solar, wind, and water power. But change is hard, no matter if the change is good or not.
Biomass energy is one source that is gaining some traction for use while we work on how to transition away from fossil fuels. Biomass is organic and renewable. Before the mid-1800s it was the largest source of energy consumption in the United States. In developing countries it is still widely used for heat and cooking. In the US, about 5% of energy needs are currently met with biomass.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) defines biomass as renewable organic material that comes from plants and animals. The plants store chemical energy from the sun through photosynthesis, and that energy is accessed when the biomass is burned, or when it is converted to liquid or gas through some additional process.
Wood and wood waste is used by some industries to produce steam and electricity. Paper manufactures and wood product manufacturers can utilize their own waste products, reducing the other fuels and electricity they need to buy to run their facilities. It also means less waste is funneled to landfills.
Biomass fuels are being researched for transportation uses as a way to reduce the carbon emissions from gasoline and diesel.
The advantages of biomass include that they are a renewable resource that is inexpensive and widely available. They are carbon neutral, in that they will only release back into the atmosphere the amount of carbon they absorbed during their life cycle. Using biomass reduces the reliance on fossil fuel sources and adds a revenue stream for manufacturers who are able to sell their waste as biomass, or use it for their own energy needs as noted above.
There are shortcomings to biomass energy. It is less efficient than fossil fuels, and some, like Ethanol and Biodiesel, need to be used in conjunction with fossil fuels. It is not a clean energy source. Using animal waste for energy produces methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, and burning wood or other plants creates pollution. Biomass plants require a lot of space to grow sufficient amounts, and that means that urban settings won’t be able to reap the benefits. In agricultural settings, fuel crops could displace food crops, although many fuel crops will grow on land that won’t sustain food crops.
Given the disadvantages, it is unlikely that biomass energy is a sustainable option in the long term, but it certainly holds hope of bridging a gap in the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.