There are a lot of controversies surrounding many of the different types of renewable energy sources. Possibly the most controversial form of renewable energy is biomass energy. In some cases opponents question whether it should be considered renewable, others question whether it reduces carbon emissions.
There are many biomass power plants in the USA and around the world with more being planned for construction.
On this page we sort through the various pros and cons for using biomass as a renewable energy source. For the sake of this particular article we will concentrate on larger commercial power plants because these are the projects that will have the greatest impact on the environment.
We will first discuss the advantages of biomass energy and then follow that up by talking about the disadvantages.
The Pros For Using Biomass Energy
It Is Renewable
The first positive aspect dealing with biomass energy is that it produces electricity by using renewable resources. These resources may be wood waste, forest residue, processed wood pellets or urban waste.
In many cases biomass power plants uses wood waste that comes from existing logging or sawmill projects. The fuel might also come from forest thinning that is being done to prevent severe wildfires in the area or it may be from crops that are grown specifically for the purpose of providing fuel for the plant. In all cases the fuel can be relatively quickly replaced.
By using organic materials to produce electricity there is less demand for electricity produced by non-renewable resources such as coal and gas. The whole point of using renewable energy is to ease the dependence on sources that are damaging the environment in so many ways.
It is Carbon Neutral
The difference between burning biomass fuel as opposed to coal or gas is that the carbon that is released through the burning process was already present in the environment in the form of the plant. When coal or gas is used it is removed from the ground where it has been sequestered for thousands of years.
It Helps With Solid Waste Management
Every day we produce millions of tons of solid waste. This waste comprises biodegradable waste, recyclable waste and hazardous waste. All of this waste is being disposed of in a number of different ways but the vast majority is being delivered to landfills which are quickly being filled and pollution problems are common.
By using large quantities of woody waste as fuel for biomass power plants the problem of storing massively bulky waste is removed. While this type of waste is biodegradable it will take a long time to take place in which time vast quantities will have been produced also requiring room to be dumped.
The Cons Against Using Biomass Energy
It Causes Pollution
The largest argument against biomass as a clean energy is the pollution that is produced from burning wood and other biological materials. It is claimed that the emissions are as much or more than those produced when burning fossil fuels such as coal.
The types of pollutants that may be emitted by burning biomass includes particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, lead, mercury and other hazardous substances such as styrene, acrolein and formaldehyde.
While this still qualifies biomass energy as a renewable energy, it is difficult to claim it is a clean or green energy.
It Requires Transportation of the Fuel
A common point that is raised about biomass energy is the need to transport the fuel to the power plant and the carbon emissions and pollution that is created in doing so. the argument is that this turns a renewable energy into an energy that is reliant on fossil fuel as part of the production.
But the point to remember is that the fuel that is being brought to the power plant will have had to be transported somewhere eventually. The net carbon emissions that are created is often calculated to work out as neutral.
This disadvantage brings up another aspect that many opponents object to and that is the increase in heavy traffic. In some cases biomass power plants are located in urban environments and the requirement for huge numbers of trucks to make deliveries to the plant can be extremely disruptive.
Burning Potential Food Crops
There is a strong argument against biomass because it causes crops to be planted with the intention of harvesting for fuel to feed power plants. By growing crops that are devoted to producing fuel that will eventually be burned for biomass energy we are using land that might otherwise have been used for food crops. This practice is said to be contributing to food shortages in certain parts of the world.
This is a complex issue and the suggestion that crops grown for fuel causes food shortages is not entirely true. In a lot of cases crop rotation that involves food crops and fuel crops can improve the land and increase yields from one year to the next.
Biomass Is Expensive
The creation of biomass power plants complete with dedicated boilers designed specifically to take woody fuel in the form of chips, pellets or brickettes is costly. Transport and feeding costs are also quite high and will be constantly required on a daily basis.
When compared with the costs around creating electricity burning fossil fuels, biomass comes out as the more expensive option.
There will continue to be strong voices of opinion on either side of the biomass argument. This is healthy and will help to improve the technology surrounding the industry as well as ensure that awareness about the pitfalls is high.
There are already boilers and particulate removal technologies being developed to solve the pollution problems as well as work being done to address other problems.
As long as both proponents and opponents continue to be vocal about the industry it will continue to improve which will ultimately lead to a better product.