Pros and Cons of Biomass Energy

2 minute read Graham Lumley Last update January 2024

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Benefits of Biomass Energy

There are several positive attributes to the use of biomass for power generation, including the renewable nature of course materials, the focus on carbon neutrality goals, waste reduction, and job creation. 

Renewable

Once depleted, it’s impossible to replace fossil fuels like coal and oil. In contrast, the organic materials used in biomass conversion can be continually grown and harvested, presenting more viable longterm energy possibilities.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), renewable energy already accounts for about 21% of total U.S. electricity generation and is set to contribute to 80% of new power generation by 2030.

Carbon Neutral Potential

When new biomass is grown to replace harvested materials, it absorbs a comparable amount of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Experts believe biomass can reduce greenhouse gas output by up to 90%.

This equilibrium results in a close-to-closed carbon loop, making biomass energy a potentially carbon-neutral option when managed efficiently. 

Waste Reduction and Utilization

Food waste alone in the US adds up to nearly 60 million tons annually. Biomass energy can utilize these organic materials along with agricultural residues and forestry by-products, mitigating the need for more resource-heavy waste disposal methods like landfill sites.

However, the burning of biomass that could be used elsewhere, such as fertilization, doesn’t pose as much of a net positive.

Job Creation

From cultivating and harvesting biomass materials and the operation and maintenance of biomass power plants to the development of new biomass-related technologies and research initiatives, the potential for job creation across various stages of the supply chain is diverse.

There are currently nearly 50,000 biomass-related energy jobs in the US, with continued growth expected. 

Drawbacks of Biomass Energy

Despite its abundant nature, biomass energy is not without its drawbacks, prompting a critical examination of the following environmental and societal implications.

Land Use and Deforestation

The need for large-scale cultivation to secure ample biomass renewable energy resources raises viable concerns about land use and deforestation. Plus, some biomass crops produce only 500 to 1000 liters of biodiesel fuel per hectare, meaning life-cycle production and transport emissions may ultimately exceed those of traditional fossil fuels. 

Competition with Food Production

Striking a balance between bioenergy production and food security requires careful consideration. As the global demand for bioenergy crops rises, competition for arable land intensifies, potentially encroaching on areas traditionally used for food production, leading to challenges in food security

Air Pollution

Converting biomass by burning releases carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, contributing to air pollution.

The adverse effects on public health could be significant. For example, in Europe, it’s estimated that biomass smoke contributes to at least 40,000 premature deaths per year, as well as negatively affecting respiratory and cardiovascular health.

Resource Intensive

The production, transportation, and utilization of biomass energy require substantial amounts of water, fertilizers, and energy. So much so, that it may counterbalance the perceived environmental benefits, putting the net benefits of biopower under scrutiny