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Biomass pros and cons

Last updated 12/24/2019

No energy source is perfect, biomass included. Though it is renewable, there are both benefits and downsides to generating electricity using biomass energy plants. In this article, we’ll review just a few of the advantages and disadvantages of using biomass for electricity generation.

Top pros and cons of biomass

There are both pros and cons of utilizing biomass for energy. Here are a few to keep in mind:

Pros and cons of biomass

Pros of biomass Cons of biomass
Renewable High costs
Waste reduction Space requirements
Reliability Some adverse environmental impact

On the pros side, bioenergy is a widely available, reliable type of renewable energy. Harvesting biomass for electricity can also help us reduce waste. However, there are cons to consider: compared to other sources for electricity, biomass can be expensive to gather, transport, and store. Additionally, building biomass energy plants for large-scale electricity production can require a good amount of land space. There are also a number of environmental downsides of biomass that can vary depending on the type of fuel used and how it’s collected.

Below, we'll explore these pros and cons in further detail:

Advantages of biomass

Biomass is a renewable resource

Biomass is an abundant resource: organic matter surrounds us, from forests and croplands to waste and landfills. All biomass originally gets its energy from the sun – thanks to photosynthesis, biomass resources regrow in a relatively short timespan compared to fossil fuel resources that take hundreds of millions of years to replenish. As such, we won’t run out of biomass to use for energy production.

Biomass helps reduce waste

Landfills have a number of negative impacts on the environment, including contamination of nearby air, soil and water, and the emission of greenhouse gases. 

Many products that end up in landfills are hazardous and toxic; depending on how these materials are managed, they can end up contaminating our land, air, and water, which eventually leads to adverse environmental and human health consequences.

Additionally, landfills are a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere. When organic matter in landfills decomposes, it emits methane–one of the most potent greenhouse gases–as well as carbon dioxide and other compounds. 

Diverting waste to biomass energy plants instead of landfills not only helps reduce the size of landfills and alleviates these risks, but also takes materials that would otherwise sit around and uses them productively.

Biomass is a reliable source of electricity

In many instances, biomass energy plants are dispatchable, meaning they can easily be turned on or off. This allows electricity grid operators to use electricity from these plants during times of peak demand. 

Bioenergy is not intermittent or variable unlike other sources of renewable energy like solar and wind: the sun isn’t always shining, and the wind isn’t always blowing. In the absence of storage technologies, you can’t always use solar or wind energy when you need it. In comparison, while the availability of some biomass resources may be susceptible to seasonality, biomass energy plants can always turn on to provide power, regardless of the weather outside.

Disadvantages of biomass

Costs

Outside of the upfront costs to get the plants up and running, there are additional costs associated with extracting, transporting, and storing biomass prior to electricity generation. This is an added cost that other renewable technologies don’t need to account for, seeing as they rely on free, on-site resources (tides, sunshine, wind, etc.) for fuel.

Costs can vary widely from biomass energy plant to biomass energy plant, and in some cases, bioenergy has the potential to be cost-competitive with solar and wind. Overall costs largely depend on the type of biomass and how it’s converted to electricity. That said, even though biomass is often more expensive than alternative renewable energy options, the most expensive types of bioenergy are still on-par with or cheaper than fossil fuels: bioenergy does not require drilling into the earth, which carries a high capital (and environmental) cost.

Space requirements

Biomass energy plants require quite a bit of space, limiting the areas you can place a plant. Oftentimes, companies also need to place these plants in close proximity to their source of biomass to cut down on transportation and storage costs. 

Additional space may also be necessary to grow the organic matter itself; if power companies are growing crops or trees for the sole purpose of bioenergy, rather than using agricultural waste, this contributes to a larger land footprint per unit of electricity production.

Adverse environmental impacts

Like many other forms of energy, producing electricity from biomass can come with a number of environmental downsides.

For one, depending on the type of biomass used to generate electricity, unsustainable bioenergy practices can result in deforestation over time. Companies that clear-cut forests to provide material for biomass energy plants harm the natural environment and disrupt the habitats of plants and animals in the process. Clearing plants and organic material from the earth can also impact the health of surrounding soil that requires biomass for compost and fertilization.

Growing crops for the sole purpose of bioenergy resources also requires a good amount of water: all plants need water to grow, and continuous irrigation of these resources can make an area more vulnerable to drought. 

Additionally, while oftentimes viewed as an environmentally-friendly alternative to coal, producing electricity from biomass does release pollutants into the air, such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and more. In some cases, the emissions and pollutants from biomass can be worse than those from fossil fuel resources. These pollutants have adverse impacts on environmental and human health.

The environmental and health consequences of bioenergy can be minimized through a number of efforts, including more sustainable land-use practices, re-planting efforts, and technological innovation.

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