One of the most crucial issues facing the world both in the present and future has to do with energy. How do we produce it, and what is the environmental cost of doing so?
Currently, fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal provide around 80% of total energy in the US, and a comparable figure around the world. However, alternate fuel sources will become increasingly necessary going forward.
One such alternative is biomass energy. We’ll examine some advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy as a major energy source.
Advantages of Biomass Energy
Before talking about the advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy, it’s probably good to briefly define it. Biomass energy is energy derived from recently living sources – plants and animals. It is a renewable source of energy, and can be accessed in several ways.
Biomass can be produced by burning organic materials, or harnessed as methane gas or fermented to serve as ethanol to be used by vehicles.
The following are some of the ways that biomass is an attractive energy source.
Biomass energy can come from the byproduct of nearly every human endeavor. It can be produced from agriculture, both plant and livestock. It can be harvested from landfills and other places we dispose of our garbage. Anywhere plants grow, there’s the potential to harness biomass energy.
With other sources of energy, most notably fossil fuels, there’s a scarcity factor. And that scarcity is only going to get worse over time. Biomass energy doesn’t have the problem, as new sources are constantly and quickly growing all the time.
Biomass energy is often significantly cheaper than fossil fuels. This is largely due to the fact that biomass energy is easy to access.
With fossil fuels, it’s often necessary to invest significant money into tapping into the oil or natural gas. Drilling deep underground or at the bottom of the ocean and building the infrastructure to support extracting and transporting fossil fuels is a major expense. This is something that’s only going to get worse as the supply of fossil fuels shrinks.
Biomass, in contrast, is usually produced and harvested in easily accessible places. Farms, landfills, sewage treatment facilities and places like these are where we get biomass energy. All of them are easy to get to and easy to work with.
As a result, biomass energy can offer significant savings over fossil and other types of energy.
Reduction in Waste
Any kind of waste, whether it be agricultural waste or garbage produced by individual people, can either be used, stored, or simply allowed to contaminate the environment. We use countless acres of space for landfills and other waste storage areas.
Biomass energy reduces the amount of waste we produce, and is able to find additional use for the landfills we do need. The land we do save from needing to store our waste can now be used for more productive means. Also, less waste means less contamination and destruction of the environment.
Disadvantages of Biomass Energy
While biomass energy offers a number of pros, there are also some downsides to its use. When looking at the advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy, it’s necessary to explore some of the negative aspects as well.
One of the underappreciated issues that we face in the future is water management. Water is a precious resource, and one that is increasingly under pressure from rising populations. Plant matter needs copious amounts of water to grow, and much of biomass energy comes from growing plants.
If we were to switch to an energy model more dependent on biomass energy, that’s going to create a need for more water diverted to producing that energy. This, in turn, means that we either need to produce or get more water, or else divert water from other places. It might mean that people need to cut down on personal water use, or might make certain areas of the world less viable to live in.
Biomass energy doesn’t release carbon dioxide, which is a major problem with burning fossil fuels. However, biomass leads to an increase in methane gasses, which have a similar negative effect on the earth’s ozone layer .
This means that switching energy use from fossil fuels to biomass energy isn’t necessarily going to result in a major improvement in our impact on the environment. At least, not when it comes to airborne emissions.
Further, biomass energy often produces unpleasant odors. If it were to be adopted for more widespread use, people would need to resign themselves to living in closer proximity to waste, which isn’t always pleasant to be around.
Unfortunately, biomass energy isn’t nearly as efficient as some other energy sources like fossil fuels. In fact, sometimes fossil fuels are added to biomass in order to boost its efficiency. Simply put, it takes more mass of biomass to produce the same amount of energy as a smaller amount of fossil fuel.
This means that we’d need more space to store and process the biomass, and would lead to some situations where we’d need to re-design systems to account for the lack of efficiency.
The Bottom Line
There are a number of advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy, which make it well suited to certain areas and less well suited to others. It’s a great supplement to fossil fuels, as it’s cheaper and easier to access, as well as being a renewable energy source.
Its inefficiency and resource requirements are barriers to more widespread adoption. Unless those issues can be solved, biomass energy isn’t probably the magic solution to our future energy requirements. A look at the advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy says that its pros outweigh the cons. However, there are significant downsides to relying more on it.
With that being said, advances in technology can potentially overcome those hurdles. If that happens, the advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy may shift more toward the positive and less toward the negative.