Fossil Fuels vs Biofuel, Biomass, Biogas & Bioenergy: Comparison, Differences, & Which Is Better?

In the guide below, we compare fossil fuels vs biofuel, biomass, biogas, and bioenergy.

We identify some of similar uses and also main differences between them.

We also identify some of the potential benefits and drawbacks to each, and consider which might be better for different purposes.

For those who want further clarification on what each of biomass, biofuel, bioenergy and biogas are, and how they compare to each other, we’ve written a separate comparison guide doing this.

 

Summary – Fossil Fuels vs Biofuel, Biomass, Biogas & Bioenergy

We’ve tried to summarise some of the different main features, and also potential main benefits and drawbacks of fossil fuels, biofuel, biomass, biogas and bioenergy compared to each other across different areas in the guide below.

However, it’s also worth noting that these features, benefits, drawbacks etc. can be situational, and can change according to the variables of each situation.

A few of the key reasons for this are:

– Variables With How Each Is Produced & Used

As one example of this, the specific type of biomass feedstock used, and also the method of processing or converting biomass into useable energy can impact how that bio product rates.

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.

 

– Future Developments & Changes With Biomass Technology & Fossil Fuel Production

Biomass derived technology may continue to develop over time, and this might change the benefits and drawbacks to using them.

The development of second and third generation biomass is one example of this.

Another example 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.

Subsidies and other variables can also play a role in the future.

 

So, it’s important to read the guide below with this clarification in mind.

 

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?

– Cost

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.

 

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)

 

From climate.mit.edu:

[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?

Most biofuel blends still contain a majority petroleum fuel in the blend

This is important to consider from a supply and demand perspective, and also from a perspective of what fuel types are practically being used in the market

 

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, a certain amount of petroleum based fuel or other fuel sources would have to be supplied to the market where ethanol and biofuels can’t be (or there’s drawbacks in doing so)

 

From climate.mit.edu:

… 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?

– Cost

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

 

[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 

So, biomethane may not be a good substitute for natural gas from supply perspective

This might be considered a significant practical limitation in 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

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 Have Specific Or Supplementary Uses Behind Electrification & Other Energy Sources, But Might Not Be A Complete Alternative To Be Used Widely Or By Itself

RNG might be best used on smaller/narrower scales, as supplementary energy to natural gas and other energy sources, and in specific industries where it makes sense to use it.

Using it as a primary energy source, or as an alternative to electrification of buildings, might come with problems and lack feasibility in some ways.

 

From vox.com:

… 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 [and it shouldn’t be] an alternative to electrification

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 than fracking it out of the ground.

It’s better for [some] sectors to burn RNG (and SNG) than to burn fracked gas.

But … there is no scenario in which RNG is an alternative to electrification. At best, it is a complement. 

The same is true in the US, as virtually every study agrees. Deep decarbonization means the decline of the natural gas industry, no matter what happens with RNG or SNG.

 

Which Might Be Better For Transport, & Why?

The story might be similar with transport as with buildings and stationary energy needs.

There might not be enough biomethane to meet fuel consumption and demand, but, biomethane might be able to benefit some vehicles in a supplementary fuel role.

 

From vox.com:

[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 that could benefit from RNG. Recently, UPS bought a bunch of RNG to reduce the climate impact of its existing fleet of natural-gas trucks. 

 

Other Considerations

– Potential Impact On Vulnerable Communities

The places where RNG is produced or captured might already have vulnerable communities, and RNG might negatively impact these communities with further pollution in some instances.

 

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)

 

– Sustainability & Potential Environmental Impact

Read this guide for more information on the potential sustainability and eco impact of biomethane and RNG.

 

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 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

Other reports indicate that bioenergy can be on par with or cheaper than fossil fuels in some instances

Several developments could lower the cost of some biofuels in the future

A better energy source in the future than both bioenergy and fossil fuels might be other renewables like solar and wind

 

From azocleantech.com:

[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.

[Scaling of biofuel may decrease costs in the future too]

The use of biofuels would indeed result in net fuel cost savings of $890 billion when compared to fossil fuels. The key issue to take into consideration is that higher amount of biofuels may make the overall fuel costs more expensive than the fossil fuels on a short-term horizon. However, those initial costs could be compensated by the 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)

 

From biologicaldiversity.org:

The inefficiency of using forest biomass to generate electricity makes it particularly costly. In fact, 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, biofuel can be cheaper, and biomass technology might be more profitable in the long term for producers in some instances.

 

From syntechbioenergy.com:

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 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 reduce 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’ 

– 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

 

 

Sources

1. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/2/14/21131109/california-natural-gas-renewable-socalgas

2. https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/why-arent-biofuels-more-prevalent

3. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/29/biofuels-are-not-the-green-alternative-to-fossil-fuels-they-are-sold-as

4. https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=337

5. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/what-is-the-real-cost-of-a-switch-to-biofuels/JVVCML3BVA3TEM7JZQMDZDXAJU/

6. https://physicsworld.com/a/biomass-energy-green-or-dirty/

7. https://www.nrel.gov/research/re-biomass.html

8. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/29/biofuels-are-not-the-green-alternative-to-fossil-fuels-they-are-sold-as

9. https://www.energysage.com/about-clean-energy/biomass/pros-and-cons-biomass/

10. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/sasha-stashwick/solar-and-wind-cheaper-biomass-reliably-power-uk

11. https://www.syntechbioenergy.com/blog/biomass-advantages-disadvantages

12. https://www.greensquare.co.uk/blog/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-biomass-energy

13. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/climate_law_institute/pdfs/Biomass-Energy-Is-Polluting-5.pdf

 

 

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