In light of global warming and climate change, renewable energy is being seen as a must in a changing world. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of biomass as an alternative form of energy!
- Biomass is renewable,
- Biomass reduces waste,
- Biomass is reliable,
- Biomass requires limited processing,
- Biomass is carbon neutral.
- Biomass uses a lot of space,
- Biomass has adverse environmental effects,
- Biomass is inefficient,
- Biomass is expensive.
The advantages and disadvantages of biomass are scientific while also being subject to socio-economic considerations. These factors will be important when evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of using biomass.
What Are The Advantages Of Biomass?
Biomass materials as a source of alternative energy provide numerous advantages over traditional methods of energy production. Let’s look at five common advantages now!
Biomass Is Renewable
Biomass is a renewable source of energy. Unlike traditional, non-renewable resources that are finite such as fossil fuels, biomass materials are harvested from a wide variety of organic materials, which is infinite.
As an infinite source of power, the sun’s energy is essentially trapped inside organic material, such as plant debris, wood processing by-products, waste, algae, etc. These materials can be grown and harvested on mass, meaning there is no finite extraction.
In conclusion, while energy sources that rely on fossil fuels take millions of years to replenish, biomass materials can be grown and harvested on short cycles, allowing for monthly and yearly replenishment as a source of energy.
Biomass Reduces Waste
While biomass materials can be dedicated to growing operations, such as the planting and harvesting of dedicated energy crops or algae, biomass materials can also come into fruition through waste and residue from other operations.
Common examples of waste or residue materials used for biomass include:
- Agricultural crop residue (this includes unused by-products of a harvest such as stalks, leaves, husks, and cobs),
- Forestry residue (this includes unused by-products of the logging industry such as limbs, tops, culled trees, and other unmarketable material),
- Sorted municipal waste (this includes residential and commercial garbage such as paper, cardboard, garden refuse, plastics, rubber, leather, textiles, and food waste),
- Wet waste (this includes residential and commercial food waste, organic bio-solids, manure slurries, organic industrial waste, and biogas).
The use of waste, which is usually dumped in the environment, burnt, or sent to landfills, can now be commodified into an energy source.
This is significant in combating climate change, as unregulated dumping, burning of waste products, or the creation of landfills results in numerous adverse effects on the environment.
Such adverse effects include contamination of air, land, and water sources and releasing greenhouse gases, which further damage the ozone layer and global warming.
This commodification of waste is also seen by many as a way in which to translate present “blue-collar” workers from the fossil fuel industry into the renewable energy sector, leading to increased job creation.
This is an important consideration when considering the longevity of biomass as an alternative to fossil fuels and other forms of renewable energy.
As at present, the biomass sector is primarily focused on high skilled workers in research and development rather than on large-scale job creation in the production and harvesting of biomass materials.
Biomass Is Reliable
Typically, energy stations that use biomass materials to produce electricity are dispatchable. This means that they can be turned off and on, depending on energy consumption needs at any given time.
The dispatchable nature of biomass power plants is similar to that of hydroelectric power plants meaning these two avenues of renewable energy complement each other and are often used in conjunction with one another.
This allows these plants to substitute energy production at peak times while remaining dormant during low consumption periods. , the nature of these energy plants thus allows for stockpiling of biomass materials if and when needed.
The ability to store and stockpile biomass materials as a physical commodity for energy use when needed is in contrast to other common forms of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
The primary downside of wind and solar is their intermittent and variable method of energy production. Simply put, without complementary weather conditions of sunshine and wind, these energy sources cannot produce power.
Biomass is not subject to these variable conditions in energy production, meaning it is a more reliable energy source than other renewable sources and is on par with fossil fuels such as coal or oil.
To further explain why certain renewable energy sources are deemed unreliable and how technology needs to complement their implication, I would recommend watching Michale Shellenberger’s views on the topic.
The following like provides access to Michale Shellenberger’s video on “Why renewables can’t save the planet” as found on the TEDx Talks YouTube channel:
Biomass Requires Limited Processing
While there are various methods by which biomass materials can be converted into higher-grade materials, the most common and cheapest form of energy conversion of biomass is via direct combustion.
Direct combustion of biomass materials occurs on a residential or industrial scale. This, in turn, allows for heat production, either for light or warmth, or electricity generation through steam turbines.
This inexpensive and straightforward energy conversion has served humankind for thousands of years. It continues to be a primary form of energy consumption in developing countries with a large rural population.
This allows poorer, rural populations to access energy production on a residential scale without needing access to formal infrastructure as a method of harnessing energy in their homes.
While also providing a method to engage in small-scale industries such as sugar mills, sawmills, brick production, meat smoking, and tobacco curing.
Consequently, biomass provides an opportunity for developing countries and developing communities to access energy to improve their lives and livelihoods.
This is of particular significance as the international market which determines the price of fossil fuels is seldom favorable to the needs of people on the lower ends of the socio-economic spectrum.
This price-fixing and lack of access results in continued cycles of poverty, as access to reliable and efficient energy, is a primary source of industrialization and subsequent job development.
Biomass, therefore, allows poorer communities to remain competitive. Hopefully, it presents opportunities for poverty alleviation, economic development, job creation, and improved quality of life without third-party assistance.
Biomass Is Carbon Neutral
Turning to the harvesting of plant and woody materials for the purposes of making biomass, studies show that the natural decomposition of these materials releases similar levels of carbon dioxide as if they were burned for energy generation.
The potential of reducing CO2 emissions through biomass is that provided these harvested organic materials are planted at the rate they are burned, this allows for a carbon-neutral cycle of oxygen production and carbon dioxide emission.
The capability of biomass to be carbon-neutral is dependent on the materials being used to manufacture biomass, the strategy of forest and crop management, and the processes used to convert biomass materials into a source of energy.
For example, because the combustion of woody material produces less energy than coal, the impact of substituting biomass over coal results in an increase in CO2 emissions as more wood must be burned to achieve the same effectiveness as coal.
This means that if a power station remained coal operated, it would have produced less CO2 emissions than replacing fossil fuels with biomass materials.
In conclusion, while not inherently carbon-neutral, if managed appropriately in collaboration with other methods of renewable energy production, then biomass can prove helpful in combating climate change.
What Are The Disadvantages of Biomass?
Having discussed the advantages of using biomass materials as an alternative energy source, let’s look at four commonly observed disadvantages for energy production.
Biomass Uses A Lot Of Space
In terms of challenges to infrastructure and city planning, biomass energy plants require a lot of space that needs to be typically placed in urban areas to allow for ease of energy distribution.
The biomass plants also have to be placed near sources of biomass material production and harvesting, meaning further considerations for city planners.
In terms of the production and harvesting of biomass materials, this can result in the need for arable land to grow dedicated energy crops. The need for arable land may result in deforestation to allow for planting these dedicated energy crops.
Alternatively, suppose woody materials are desirable and easily accessible for an energy plant. In that case, an increase in logging may occur to meet energy demands, a well-known cause of deforestation.
The issues caused by deforestation are numerous, in that the felling of trees leads to an increase in greenhouse gases, habitation for animals, and adverse effects on soil quality.
Biomass Has Adverse Environmental Effects
Over and above the issues of deforestation raised above, which can break the carbon-neutral benefit of using biomass if not correctly regulated, are the issues of water usage in biomass production and the inherent dangers of combustion.
Beginning with water usage, dedicated energy crops, like all types of plants, require irrigation systems and large sums of water to be grown on an industrial scale. Significant water usage increases the risk of drought in an area.
In terms of the traditional methods of energy production through direct combustion of biomass materials or the burning of refined renewable biofuels, it has been argued that biomass results in similar levels of pollution as fossil fuels.
This is because once burned; certain biomass materials release equivalent pollutants into the atmosphere as their fossil fuel contemporizes. Examples of harmful pollutants include carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds.
Therefore, while biomass materials seldom release sulfur into the atmosphere, as is seen with fossil fuels, it would be incorrect to assume that biomass does not pose a risk to the health of people, animals, and the environment.
Biomass Is Ineffective
Although there is a methodology by which biomass materials can be converted into more effective materials for energy production, such as biofuels.
Typically speaking, biomass materials are less effective at energy production than their opposition, both in non-renewable and renewable forms of energy production.
It is not uncommon for biomass materials, such as biofuels, to include non-renewable fossil fuels in their compositions.
This combination of fossil fuels and biofuels is primarily seen as a ploy to reduce carbon tax or increase the lifespan of fossil fuels as a finite resource. It does little to reduce the negative environmental impact of just using fossil fuel-based materials.
Biomass Is Expensive
Although direct combustion is primarily an inexpensive method of generating energy from biomass, it is no more or less expensive than the burning of fossil fuels.
The methodology of combustion is also only one-half of the equation of cost when considering the production and harvesting of biomass materials.
This is because the materials used in biomass either require investment into large-scale growing operations or the establishment of infrastructure and labor-intensive programs of residue collection from various processing plants and industries.
These active labor and infrastructure costs require specialized programs to achieve their goals.
In contrast, fossil fuels have already established mining operations and refineries to convert the raw materials into energy, meaning no need for expensive conversion or investment into new technologies.
Biomass materials are also seen as expensive in relation to their renewable energy counterparts, as while the source of biomass may be infinite, it requires constant labor and upkeep in order to meet the demand of consumers.
In contrast to this labor-intensive methodology, other forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric dams present freely available forms of electricity generation.
Finally, while combustion is the cheapest method of converting biomass materials into energy, the methods by which biomass is converted into higher-grade fuels require expert skills and expensive equipment in order to facilitate this conversion.
The training of skilled engineers in order to manage this conversion coupled with the need to renovate existing power plants, vehicles, etc., to utilize bio-fuels requires investment into expensive technology and education programs.