Below, we compare fossil fuels vs biofuel, biomass, biogas, and bioenergy across different aspects and indicators.
For those who are unfamiliar with biomass derived energy sources, this separate guide explains what biomass, biofuel, bioenergy and biogas are in more detail.
Summary – Fossil Fuels vs Biofuel, Biomass, Biogas & Bioenergy
Comparing Fossil Fuels To Biomass Derived Energy Sources
Below, we’ve summarised some of the following things when it comes to fossil fuels and biomass derived energy sources – their main features, potential differences, potential similarities, potential benefits and drawbacks, and which one might be better for different purposes.
It’s worth noting that this guide is a generalisation.
Ultimately, energy sources can have different factors and variables that impact them in different geographic locations – especially over time.
One example of a significant variable might be the production of biomass derived energy sources.
The specific type of biomass feedstock used, and also the method of processing or converting biomass into useable energy can impact biomass derived energy sources.
Different crops have different requirements to produce, and crops as biomass are different to non edible biomass such as waste and residue being used.
There’s also a difference between directly burning biomass, and converting it into a useable bio-product.
These are just a few examples.
Additionally, there will be future developments and changes with biomass technology and fossil fuel technology.
The development of second and third generation biomass are examples of new developments for biomass derived energy sources.
Another example regarding fossil fuels might be additional regulations and requirements on fossil fuel power plants (like coal power plants), that might increase the cost of production in order to decrease carbon emissions and environmental pollution.
We’ve broken down the guide into the following sections:
Biofuels vs petroleum
Biogas vs natural gas
Bioenergy vs fossil fuels
Biomass vs coal, natural gas, and petroleum
Biofuels vs Petroleum
Comparing The Use Of Biofuel & Petroleum
Although there are other ways to use biofuels and petroleum, one of the main ways to compare the use of biofuels and petroleum is as a transportation fuel for vehicles.
Biofuels and petroleum based fuels are commonly used as blended fuel products, with two key examples being:
– Ethanol blended with gasoline
– Biodiesel blended with diesel
Which Might Be Better, & Why?
Several reports indicate that biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel can be more expensive than fossil fuel based fuels.
However, there are other reports that indicate that in the future, the cost of biofuels might come down as fossil fuels become more expensive to produce, and as biofuel technology develops to make it cheaper or more efficient to produce.
Having said this, progress on cheaper biofuels might be slow right now.
Bioethanol and biodiesel are around 1.5 to 1.8 times as expensive as their fossil fuel counterparts, and jet fuel is four times the price (nzherald.co.nz)
[Producing biodiesel at scale right now is cost-prohibitive compared to petroleum because the feedstock inputs needed cost more than that of oil, and the production processes aren’t efficient enough]
[More advanced biofuels made with non food crops could provide economic benefits in the future, but their progress is slow]
– Which Is Used In The Highest Quantities On The Market Right Now?
It’s important to note that most biofuels might not be pure biomass derived fuel
Most biofuels might be a blended fuel with fossil fuel products like gasoline or diesel because many engines aren’t designed or manufactured to use 100% biomass derived biofuel
So, fossil fuel derived fuel products might be far more common
From climate.mit.edu: ‘Today, most gas sold at gas stations includes about 10 percent bioalcohol fuel’
– Potential Limits On How Much Ethanol Can Be Used Because Of Drawbacks Or Tradeoffs
Practically, there may be a limit on how much ethanol can be used due to it’s impact on vehicles, and also due to performance and efficiency consideration
With this being the case, and with fuels and vehicles being the way they are now, a certain minimum amount of petroleum based fuel may be necessary to supply to the market to cover for what ethanol can’t deliver in terms of performance and other capabilities
… there are limits to how much biofuel vehicles can handle … [and] Anything higher [than a certain amount] would radically change the way vehicle engines perform
[Adding anything higher than 10 to 15% ethanol would decrease fuel economy, or would …] cancel out any environmental benefits of using it in the first place, because vehicles would use more fuel
[Vehicles that run on 100 percent biofuel … never run as efficiently as they would with petroleum]
Biogas vs Natural Gas
Comparing The Use Of Biogas & Natural Gas
Biogas and natural gas can be compared for their use in traditional natural gas infrastructure, such as pipelines, and for end use in activities like cooking and heating in buildings.
Biogas and natural gas also both have the capacity to be used for electricity generation.
There’s also the ability to convert biomethane (a refined biogas, also called renewable natural gas, or RNG) into CNG and LPG, and use it like compressed or liquefied natural gas is used for in transportation and vehicles.
Biogas can replace a certain % of natural gas supply in these uses.
We’ve outlined in more detail what raw biogas and biomethane (renewable natural gas) are, what they can be used for in this guide.
Which Might Be Better For Buildings & Stationary Energy Use, & Why?
Biomethane may be costlier for gas suppliers, and these costs may be passed onto consumers who use gas for their homes and buildings as an energy source
Natural gas may have an economic advantage with this being the case
[In California, there may be rate hikes for customers if gas utilities start increasing RNG in their pipelines] (vox.com)
– Having Enough Biomethane To Meet Current Natural Gas Demand
There may not be anywhere near enough biomethane produced to meet the current demand for natural gas in some regions
So, biomethane may not be a good substitute for natural gas from supply perspective, or from a scaling perspective
This imposes a significant practical limitation on the use of biomethane (to replace natural gas usage)
[There isn’t enough RNG to match total gas demand, as] RNG could replace 4.1 percent of California’s gas demand (1.6 percent on the low end of estimates) (vox.com)
– Electrification Of Buildings May Be Better Than Both Natural Gas, & RNG
Energy in buildings can be supplied by electricity, and also natural gas
Electrification of buildings via solar, wind and other ‘cleaner’ sources may be better than natural gas or RNG across several metrics, such as decarbinization, cost, and others
[Several reports indicate that] electrification [i.e. using the electricity grid] is the cheapest option for decarbonizing buildings … [and] RNG is costly compared to [electrification and] other alternatives (vox.com)
– RNG Might Be Supplementary To Electrification & Other Energy Sources, Rather Than Being A Primary Energy Source On It’s Own
RNG may have some of it’s own narrow or niche uses.
But overall, RNG might only be a supplementary energy source to natural gas or electricity as more primary energy sources.
Using it as a primary energy source, or as a sole alternative to electrification of buildings, might come with certain problems and feasibility issues.
… there is no scenario in which RNG is an alternative to electrification. At best, it is a complement.
… RNG is a promising development [but it …] should be targeted at harder-to-abate sectors [along with subsectors and niche applications] where it has the highest social value …
As long as there are landfills, giant manure ponds, agriculture and forestry waste, and sewage treatment plants off-gassing methane into the atmosphere, it makes sense to capture as much of that methane as possible and use it.
It’s better for [some] sectors to burn RNG (and SNG) than to [frack methane out the ground, or to] burn fracked gas [for example]
Several studies might agree on this line of thinking, especially in the US.
Reducing emissions in particular might mean the decline of the natural gas industry, no matter what happens with RNG or SNG.
Which Might Be Better For Transport, & Why?
What we’ve written above for energy for buildings might apply to transport.
There might not be enough biomethane to meet fuel demand (particularly for diesel in some places), but, biomethane might be able to benefit some vehicles in a supplementary fuel role.
[One report] showed that it would require almost the entire country’s RNG potential to replace diesel fuel alone in California
There are [however] lots of vehicles already in circulation [(such as natural gas vehicles)] that could benefit from RNG.
– Potential Impact On Vulnerable Communities, & Local Communities
The places where RNG is produced or captured might negatively impact already vulnerable communities with pollution in some instances.
Having said this though, several reports int he past have also pointed out how the mining of different fossil fuels can negatively impact local communities too.
RNG impacts are [also concentrated in vulnerable communities that might be some of the poorest, and also have some of the worst pollution already] (vox.com)
Bioenergy vs Fossil Fuels
Comparing The Use Of Bioenergy & Fossil Fuels
Bioenergy sources are commonly used for heat and electricity generation, and fossil fuel sources like coal, natural gas, and petroleum each have the ability to be used for one or both of heat and electricity generation too.
Which Might Be Better, & Why?
– Cost For Consumers
The cost of biofuels might depend on a range of factors
azocleantech.com for example indicates that ‘Costs of biofuels mainly depend on labor and land costs, feedstock, oil market and agricultural subsidies.’
Some reports indicate that biofuels currently cost more than gasoline per litre, and that biofuels rely on subsidies and government policy support to an extent
Several developments could lower the cost of some biofuels in the future
In terms of bioenergy, it might be on par with or cheaper than fossil fuels in some instances
But, bio power (i.e. biomass used for electricity) might be more expensive that some renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and some reports indicate that future government investment should be reallocated to these energy sources instead
[Generally, ethanol costs more than gasoline per litre]
The cost [of some ligno-cellulosic ethanols is] predicted to halve in the next decade with further process development, low-cost waste feedstock, co-production of other by-products and scaling up of plants [for biofuel]
The use of biofuels would … result in net fuel cost savings of $890 billion when compared to fossil fuels. [Biofuels may be …] more expensive than the fossil fuels on a short-term horizon [however there may be …] fuel cost savings in the longer-run.
In addition, several favorable government policies also exist to encourage biofuel technologies, which include quotas for renewable fuels in various countries.
… even though biomass is often more expensive than alternative renewable energy options, the most expensive types of bioenergy are still on-par with or cheaper than fossil fuels: bioenergy does not require drilling into the earth, which carries a high capital (and environmental) cost (energysage.com)
The inefficiency of using forest biomass to generate electricity makes it particularly costly [with an example being that …] biomass power is California’s most expensive energy source.
Biomass power plants rely heavily on regulatory incentives and subsidies paid for by taxpayers and ratepayers.
These biomass subsidies consume resources that would be better spent on cheaper and truly clean solar and wind energy alternatives and the jobs they create
In 2025, in all cases, biomass will be higher cost than all forms of wind and solar (nrdc.org)
– Profit For Producers
Some reports indicate that fossil fuels have a higher upfront/capital investment cost than biomass technology
This may contribute to making biomass derived energy sources more profitable
While fossil fuel production requires a heavy outlay of capital, such as oil drills, gas pipelines and fuel collection, biomass technology is much cheaper.
Manufacturers and producers are able to generate higher profits from a lower output
A biomass boiler is considered cheaper than oil or gas fired boilers for the longer term financial gain because of cheaper fuel costs … (greensquare.co.uk)
– Characteristics & Performance
azocleantech.com indicates that (paraphrased) biodiesel may have greater ability to ignite (or ignite more rapidly) in some instances than petroleum diesel, and petroleum diesel might be less prone to forming wax crystals at lower temperatures and therefore be less prone to clogging issues
However, biodiesel might have oxygen present that improves combustion
– Competition For Land Use, & Impact On Food Production
Several reports indicate that dedicated biomass grown on agricultural land not only competes with other land uses like timber and food production, but, it can also contribute to reducing the total available food supply and increase food prices in some instances.
azocleantech.com: ‘… farmers are making use of the land to grow biofuel feedstock alone rather than food whereby driving up food prices globally.’
However, other types of biomass like waste and residue biomass may not have the same effect of competing for land use or impacting food production.
But, providing this type of biomass at scale might be a problem.
theguardian.com points out ‘… most of these residues are already used for animal feed or needed for soil fertility, and others are expensive to harvest’
Biomass vs Coal, Natural Gas & Petroleum
Comparing The Use Of Biomass & Coal, Natural Gas, & Petroleum
Three key uses of different types of biomass, and coal, natural gas and petroleum to compare might be:
– Use for heating and electricity generation
– Use as a transportation fuel
– Use as a feedstock for different goods, products and commodities
Which Might Be Better, & Why?
It obviously depends on the product being produced, or the end use for each energy source.
We’ve already compared the use of fossil fuels to the use of biomass for biofuels, biogas and bioenergy above.
Beyond what is already outlined above, some of the key differences between biomass and fossil fuels might be:
– Biomass aren’t considered a scarce resource vs. fossil fuels that are considered ‘finite’
– Some types of biomass may not be produced in high enough quantities though to meet supply.
This applies to both some waste or residue biomass when compared to the demand for power (physicsworld.com discusses this in more detail), and also biomethane meeting gas demand in some areas
– Fossil fuels generally require some type of mining to extract, whereas biomass can be grown or cultivated in various ways
– When burnt, fossil fuels take carbon that was stored underground, and introduce it to the atmosphere.
Biomass on the other hand absorbs CO2 already in the atmosphere, and when burnt, releases CO2 back into the atmosphere.
So, one adds CO2 to the atmosphere, whilst one cycles it back into the atmosphere.
Some also argue that new biomass grown in the place of harvested biomass absorbs the carbon back up.
– Biomass production may provide an additional income source for local farmers, and other local biomass producers (including those who grow biomass, those who provide waste and residue, those who produce biogas from organic waste, and so on)
– Biomass production may lessen some dependence of foreign gas, oil, or coal, depending on how much of each it can replace
– Waste and residue biomass may provide another use for this material that would have otherwise not been utilised
Sustainability Of Biomass, Biofuels, Bioenergy & Biogas
We’ve put together a separate guide where we discuss some of the different environmental and resource usage sustainability considerations for biomass, biofuels, bioenergy and biogas.