Here we profile the various pros and cons of biomass energy, from its wide availability to its potential impact on the environment

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Biomass energy can be produced using a vast array of natural substances, from plants to animal waste

Biomass energy plants are increasingly becoming popular, as thermal power stations shift their fuel source from coal so as to comply with the new regulation.

The energy has emerged as one of the major alternatives sources of power generation over the past few years, produced from the organic matter of various sources such as plants, wood and animals.

It can be used indirectly by converting it into fuels or directly through combustion to generate heat, or it can be converted to methane gas or transportation fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.

Here we profile the various pros and cons of the power source.

 

Biomass energy: Pros

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 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 just a few months.

pros and cons of biomass energy
Credit: Energy Technologies Institute LLP.

Reduced dependence on fossil fuels

As biomass sources can be converted to fuels and electricity, they can help in reducing the dependence on fossil fuels.

With finite reserves being 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

Carbon-neutrality 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.

Waste reduction

Generating energy from biomass materials can greatly help in waste management, which has become a major issue in many countries.

Dumping 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 rise.

 

Biomass energy: Cons

Carbon storage

Biomass contains carbon and it releases carbon dioxide on combustion and 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 of various gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, NOx (nitrogen oxides), VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which all contribute to air pollution.

pros and cons of biomass energy
Image: Biomass domes at Drax Power Station (Credit: Drax Group)

In some cases, they are found to release higher particulates and other pollutants into the atmosphere compared with those produced by traditional fuel sources.

Additionally, the use of forest-based biomass has been criticised by several environmental groups for its harmful impact on the climate.

Expensive

The construction and operating costs of a biomass energy plant can be expensive in relation to traditional forms of power generation.

Storage facilities require huge space, as harnessing energy from biomass involves a selection of different processes.

Also, extraction of biomass materials can be an expensive task due to a great variability in sources.

 

Other issues

The seasonality of biomass supply and a wide variability in available sources present a potential challenges for biomass energy plants.

Facilities must be able to cope with the ups and downs associated with the changing of the seasons, which can vary greatly.

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.