In this guide, we list the pros and cons of biomass and biofuel energy.
This guide forms part of a series of guides we have put together outlining the benefits and disadvantages of different energy sources and energy generation methods.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Biomass & Biofuel Energy
Can be renewable, unlike fossil fuels which are finite
Can be carbon neutral in some ways
Can be cost effective compared to coal and oil
Biomass are available in most geographic locations
Has a range of uses as energy and biofuels
Third generation biofuels might offer benefits that first and second generation biofuels did not
Other new developments in bioenergy underway
Not ideal as a renewable energy source compared to solar, wind and other renewable sources
Can be resource intensive (water, land, fertilizer etc.), and some argue resources can be allocated better than for biofuel
Can unnecessarily be the cause of environmental issues like deforestation and land clearing, habitat loss, and negatively impact local species, land degradation, and air pollution
Might be more time and cost intensive to maintain than some other types of energy generation
Extraction of biomass may not be cost effective
Can need a lot of land and storage space
Can contribute to water scarcity and water depletion
Can involve the inefficient conversion of energy
Is still an energy source that is being developed in some places
There are different types of bioenergy, biomass and biofuel products.
Different generations and types of bioenergy can determine the set of pros and cons.
Dedicated biomass energy can a set of cons like inefficiency of energy conversion, and the resources that are required to produce biomass (water, land etc.).
Growing organic matter like crops just for biofuel is perhaps worse than fossil fuels when measuring some sustainability and environmental indicators.
Even second generation bioenergy from non crop biomass might have issues with cost and economic feasibility.
Biofuels may have more potential with further development of third generation algal and algae based biofuels, and new types of biofuel production.
But at the moment, they can be resource intensive, inefficient and sometimes expensive.
This can depend on the country and bioenergy process used though – some countries get a reasonable % of energy from biomass.
Even still, many of the major countries of the world get most of their energy from fossil fuels over bio energy right now.
*Note – the above pros and cons are broad generalisations.
Obviously there are different variables to each specific energy project that impact the final pros and cons (like new technology that reduces emissions for coal power plants just as one of many examples).
Each energy project and situation (in different countries and cities) should be analysed individually.
Having said that, some broad principles and patterns about the pros and cons of different energy sources tend to stay consistent too.
What Is Biomass & Biofuel Energy, & What Is It Used For?
Biomass is organic matter from plants and microorganisms
There are five general categories of biomass: industrial waste and co-products, food waste, agricultural residues, energy crops, and virgin lumber (wikipedia.org).
Manure and other types of waste like garbage are also sometimes used. The main contributors of waste energy are municipal solid waste, manufacturing waste, and landfill gas.
Bioenergy is the use of the energy contained in this biomass (from photosynthesis for plants, and from the foods that microorganisms eat/consume).
Conversion of biomass to biofuel can be achieved thermally, chemically, and biochemically.
Bioenergy is used directly as heat, or to generate electricity with a steam turbine.
Biomass (via bioenergy) can also be used to make methane gas, biodiesel and other biofuels.
First Generation vs Second Generation vs Third Generation Biofuels
Are made specifically from food crops such as sugar and wheat (or plants such as sugarcane and corn starch)
Some of the uses are bioethanol, or an alcohol fuel which can be used directly in a fuel cell to produce electricity or serve as an additive to gasoline (ethane).
Second-generation biofuels use non food crops such as wood, organic waste, food crop waste, and other agriculture and municipal waste.
Specifically uses algae for bioenergy.
The advantages of algae are claimed to be that it’s low cost, higher energy and high yielding in terms of energy, and also more renewable.
Biomass & Biofuel Energy Pros
There will always be organic matter and waste to convert to energy
Renewal takes as long as each type of organic matter takes to develop, or as long as waste takes to be generated
This is in comparison to fossil fuels for example that are not seen as renewable
Biomass Can Be Carbon Neutral
In the case of bioenergy coming from plants, plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and when they decay or are burnt for energy, CO2 is released back into the atmosphere
So, the only CO2 that is released, is what was absorbed in the first place
Energy From Biomass Can Be Cost Effective
Some types of bioenergy harnessed from biomass can inexpensive compared to coal and oil (where you have to drill for oil or create gas pipelines for gas).
Some types of bioenergy cost about 1/3 less than fossil fuels doing the same job, and sometimes that cost saving is passed on via cheaper energy prices to consumers
Biomass is available in large quantities all over the world
In lesser developed countries and regions, they have been burning mainly wood, and other biomass for centuries, because other types of energy or electricity aren’t available
Can Be Used For A Range Of Uses
Biomass can be processed to create biodiesel for vehicles, but it can also be used to farm methane gas and a range of other biofuels.
Wood can be used to generate heat, while the steam produced by some forms of biomass (like from landfill) can also power turbines to create energy.
Some biofuel products may even be able to be used in fuel cells.
First, second and third generation bioenergy, and the different sources of biomass, might all be used for different uses.
Third Generation Biofuels Might Offer Additional Benefits
There’s also third generation biofuels being developed, with the biomass source being algae.
Algae based fuels might have new benefits that previous generations of biofuels didn’t, such as being more cost effective, more renewable, being higher yielding and having higher speed of growth and production rates, not compromising food production, and having other benefits
… algae-derived biomass … is produced at rates five to ten times faster than other types of land-based agriculture, such as corn and soy, and it can be fermented to produce biofuels such as ethanol, butanol, and methane, as well as biodiesel and hydrogen
Other new developments in bio energy are underway
As of 2015, a new bioenergy sewage treatment process aimed at developing countries is under trial; the Omni Processor is a self-sustaining process which uses sewerage solids as fuel in a process to convert waste water into drinking water, with surplus electrical energy being generated for export.
Biomass & Biofuel Energy Cons
The Growing Of Some Biomass Has A Resource & Environmental Footprint
Growing biofuel crops takes land, water, and fertiliser.
So, there’s a resource footprint.
Some argue these resources could be better allocated elsewhere.
Biomass fuels such as ethanol can release black carbon.
Also, if wood is not burned completely, it emits carbon monoxide and particulate matter, which are common air pollutants.
There is also machinery that is used to extract and transport biomass that emits CO2 and GHGs.
Can Sometimes Have A Higher Carbon Footprint Than Other Energy Sources
Might Be More Time & Cost Intensive During Operation Than Some Other Energy Sources
In the case of organic matter grown for bioenergy, there’s time and costs involved in planting, harvesting, and of course the resources used for these processes.
Compare that to solar of wind energy for example, which once set up, might only have basic maintenance, cleaning and sometimes repair costs.
Some Bioenergy May Not Be Cost Effective
Some first generation biomasses are not commercially viable when taking into consideration what it takes to extract them. This is true for the harvesting and storing of some biomasses.
Some second generation biomass sources (waste and other types of biomass) may also have economic feasibility issues.
Can Need Large Amounts Of Land & Space Storage & Growing
Biomass storage can need large physical areas.
Also, the growing of trees and crops takes space and soil/land.
Requires Water Resources
For irrigation to grow crops and trees.
In water scarce locations, water use for inefficient forms of energy can be an issue.
Has Potential Energy Conversion Inefficiencies
Compared to fossil fuels, like petroleum and gasoline.
And compared to renewable energy like solar and wind for example which is directly converted into electricity, biomass requires two stages of energy conversion – the first for the resources used to grow the biomass, and the second for the combustion of the biomass grown and harvested.
Is Still Being Developed & Yet To Be Improved In Some Ways
Some of the major cons of bioenergy haven’t been addressed yet.
Third generation bioenergies are not established yet either
Not A Leader For Renewable Energy
Compared to solar and water energy sources, biomass is inefficient and under-researched.
The Present, & Potential Future For Bioenergy
[If we look at the United States for example:]
Biomass fuels provided about 5% of total primary energy use in the United States in 2017. Of that 5%:
47% was from biofuels (mainly ethanol)
44% was from wood and wood-derived biomass
and, 10% was from the biomass in municipal waste
The future is moving towards algal, or algae-derived biomass … (efficientgreenpower.com)