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Major pros and cons of biomass energy

Published 16 June 2017

Biomass energy is one of the major alternatives sources of energy that is produced from organic matter of plants and animals. Different forms of biomass such as dead plants, leaves, crops, manure, trees, grass, garbage, and animal waste are used in generating biomass energy. Currently, wood is a major source of biomass energy.

Biomass energy plants are increasingly becoming popular, as thermal power stations shift their fuel source from coal to biomass to comply with the new regulations. Biomass can be used indirectly by converting it into fuels or directly through combustion to generate heat. It can be converted to methane gas or transportation fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.

Advantages of biomass energy: 

Renewable: As the availability of biomass sources such as dead plants, manure and garbage may not diminish compared to finite fossil fuel, the alternative source of energy is considered as renewable. Though the usage of some biomass sources like crops may take time to renew them, there is absence of depletion of such sources. In some cases, renewing of a biomass source can be done in few months.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: The ETI seeks partners for a new biomass pre-treatment project. Photo: Courtesy of Energy Technologies Institute LLP.

Reduce dependence on fossil fuels: As biomass sources can be converted to fuels and electricity, they can help in reducing the dependence on fossil fuels. As finite reserves is a cause of concern in case of fossil fuels, abundant availability of biomass sources offer potential to change the world’s energy mix.

Carbon neutral:  It is one of the major advantages of biomass energy. During photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon present in the atmosphere and it is again released back when they are burnt in a biomass energy plant. The released carbon is again absorbed by new plants, balancing the carbon emissions involved in burning a biomass fuel. Due to this reason, biomass energy is regarded as carbon neutral.

Waste reduction: Generating energy from biomass materials can greatly help in waste management, which has become a major issue in many countries. Dumping of waste in landfills can be reduced to a major extent by increasing the number of biomass energy plants. By helping in waste reduction, biomass energy can also have a positive impact on the environment.   

Abundant availability: Biomass energy is estimated to have a huge potential due to abundant availability of biomass sources. There is a growing availability of animal and plant waste, as production and consumption levels continue to witness an increase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: Biomass domes at Drax Power Station. Photo: Courtesy of Drax Group plc.

Disadvantages:    

Biomass availability constraints: The size of a biomass energy plant depends on the availability of biomass close to its location. Further, procuring biomass from farther places can increase transportation charges, which in turn can escalate operating costs of a biomass energy plant. Small biomass plants may need to deploy advanced technology that can convert biomass to electricity with high efficiency. In addition, an inconsistent fuel supply is one of the challenges faced by biomass plants.

Carbon storage: Biomass contains carbon and it releases carbon dioxide on combustion. The time to recapture the carbon involved in biomass may vary depending on the type of biomass. For example, the time involved in recapturing carbon stored in biomass collected from forests may be higher compared to other forms.   

Environmental damage: Using fuels produced from biomass results in the release various gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, NOx (nitrogen oxides), VOCs (volatile organic compounds), causing air pollution. In some cases, they are found to release higher particulates and other pollutants into the atmosphere compared to those produced by traditional fuel sources. Use of forest-based biomass has been criticised by several environmental groups for its harmful impact on the climate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: Use of forest-based biomass has been criticised by several environmental groups for its harmful impact on the climate. Photo courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Expensive: Construction and operating costs of a biomass energy plant can be expensive. Storage facilities require huge space, as harnessing energy from biomass involves different processes. Also, extraction of biomass materials can be an expensive task due to a great variability in sources.

Other issues: Seasonality of biomass supply and a wide variability in available sources are the potential challenges faced by biomass energy plants. Sufficient facilities are needed to store biomass which may go up during seasonal supply. As water content may be high in many of the biomass sources, transportation of the material may increase costs. Energy generation from biomass containing multiple components may not have the same efficiency compared to the usage of single source.