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6 Pros and Cons of Biomass Energy

A harvester harvesting crops on a farm

What are the pros and cons of biomass energy? The pros include renewability, reliability, and waste reduction. The cons include environmental and health impacts, cost, and space. Let’s explore each of these points one by one.

The Pros of Biomass Energy

Biomass is an organic material used to create energy, generating about 5% of total U.S. energy use. It comes with several important benefits, which we explore below.

1. Renewable

Biomass is widely available, e.g., in agricultural fields, forests, yard waste, paper waste, food waste, animal manure, and more. The sun provides the energy biomass needs to grow, and the sun’s energy is renewable, unlike fossil fuels. Biomass grows relatively quickly, while fossil fuels take millions of years to form.

2. Reliable

Another advantage of biomass energy is that biomass energy is dispatchable. That is, their operators can turn it off and on. By contrast, wind and solar power are not dispatchable because they can only generate electricity while receiving energy from their primary source (i.e., the wind and sun). While some seasonality affects the availability of biomass materials, this is a smaller factor with biomass than with other renewable energy sources.

3. Reduces Waste

A third benefit of biomass is that using it to generate electricity reduces waste that would otherwise end up in landfills. A sample of 64 U.S. power plants showed that biomass matter accounted for about 61% of combustible municipal solid waste (trash) and 45% of the electricity those plants produced. 

Additionally, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., and methane waste can be a biomass fuel. Methane is particularly harmful as it has much more climate-warming power than carbon dioxide, but it currently only accounts for 1.3% of total U.S. electricity generation.

The Cons of Biomass Energy

While biomass comes with benefits, it also has drawbacks, including one that may be surprising: its environmental impacts.

1. Space

Biomass plants typically require a lot of space and must be placed close to the biomass source to reduce transportation distance and costs. Given these plants’ large footprints, using space-efficient industrial conveyors, vibrating feeders, and other equipment is essential to control costs.

2. Negative Environmental and Health Impacts

Clear-cutting forests and growing crops to create biomass is environmentally harmful. For example, trees sequester (store) carbon, but when logged, they release that carbon into the atmosphere. Newly planted forests also sequester less carbon than old-growth forests. When it comes to agriculture for biomass, intensified land use can cause problems like flooding, erosion, and loss of soil carbon.

However, some of these downsides are addressable with responsible logging practices, tree replanting, sustainable agriculture, and harvesting on marginal lands. Another consideration is biomass’ health impacts. For example, burning biomass causes air pollution, negatively impacting human health. On the other hand, capturing landfill methane and converting it into energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Cost

A second disadvantage of biomass energy is that it’s more expensive to produce than other renewables like solar and wind energy. Why? Because the biomass has to be brought onsite for processing, while solar and wind are already onsite.

Another cause of higher costs is biomass’ low energy density; up to 50% of biomass is water. Since water is lost during energy conversion, moving it to a plant for processing is cost-inefficient.

To address cost considerations, use material feeders onsite that efficiently and economically convey bulk materials. Increasing efficiency onsite can help balance out transportation and other offsite costs.

As you can see, biomass energy has clear pros and cons. However, when done right, biomass energy can be a net positive for the environment. That’s why Carrier Vibrating proudly provides environmentally conscious equipment that helps our clients efficiently process biomass.

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