The Benefits of Biomass Energy
As you’ll see, the advantages of biomass energy are many. However, remember that reaping these advantages requires appropriate use. Energy policy often can be tainted with political motives, and it’s as true with biomass energy programs as with any other form
Still, the advantages are real.
One of the major advantages of biomass energy is it's small carbon footprint compared to fossil fuel.
As long as new plant material is grown to replace that used, biomass energy produces no net CO2 increase.
To the extent biopower reduces fossil fuel consumption it reduces CO2 release.
One problem keeps this from being as good news as it should be: often fossil fuels are used to harvest and manipulate biomass.
For example, loggers use chain saws to fell trees and trucks to transport the lumber, so some fossil fuel is used to produce wood for fuel.
Depending on the exact situation, the fossil fuel consumption required for the use of the biofuel offsets or even eliminates any carbon advantage.
Because of this, I think using corn to produce ethanol is a particularly poor form of biomass energy.
It takes almost as much oil energy in the form of fertilizer and fuel for farm machines and ethanol production as the ethanol itself contains.
Having said that, intelligent use of biomass fuel reduces carbon dioxide production.
Reduces Methane in the Atmosphere
The advantages of biomass energy includes methane reduction.
Methane causes even more greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, so its release into the atmosphere is cause for concern.
Decomposition of organic matter releases methane. Capturing this methane yields energy while protecting the atmosphere.
The animal industry and landfills produce significant amounts of methane. This is a n excellent opportunity to use biomass to good effect. We can now harvest this gas and put it to good use.
This is another area where applying biomass technology has multiple benefits. Consider the use of an anaerobic digester to manage cattle manure.
To begin, the digester is a closed container so odors are eliminated from the beginning. Methane produced by the decomposition is captures and burned.
Some of that energy is used to keep the digester at the proper temperature in colder climates.
It also powers a generator to produce electricity for use on the farm.
In the end, the digester produces a valuable as fertilizer whose nutrients are more stable than those in unprocessed manure.
The advantages of an appropriate manure management system are quite compelling.
Reduces the Need for Landfills and Lessens the Environmental Impact of Existing Landfills.
Using wood and other plant waste material as fuel keeps it out of landfills. Landfills will therefore be smaller.
Also, since decomposition of organic matter releases methane, reducing the amount of organic matter in a landfill reduces the potential for methane production.
And technology now makes it possible to capture the methane that is released to burn it for energy.
Again, we gain energy while protecting the environment.
Protects the Forests and the Atmosphere
While it may seem odd to recommend cutting down trees as a way to protect forests, it is good policy.
Forest fires were once part of the cycle of forests. Small fires kept scrub growth under control and thinned the forest.
The decades-old policy of fire suppression changed the natural evolution of forests. It has not only led to dense growth that is unhealthy for the forest but also the accumulation of potential fuel that results in an intense wild fire should one start.
We saw such a wild fire in San Diego a few years ago. These extreme forest fires are very dirty in terms of atmospheric pollution. They release huge amount of particulate matter, including the sulfur and nitrogen compounds that give rise to acid rain.
Every time I hear of a forest fire, I think what a waste it is in terms of lumber and fuel lost and what a additional burden it adds to the atmosphere.
Selective harvesting of wood from a forest improves the health of the forest while providing fuel that can now be burned cleanly.
It also reduces the risk of an intense, out-of-control forest fire. The Oregon Department of Energy commissioned a good paper on this entitled: Forest Health and Biomass Energy Here’s a quote from that paper that explains the detrimental effects of forest overgrowth:
“In recent years, the consequences of fire suppression on the ecosystems have become evident. Plant communities too dense for the moisture and nutrient conditions of a particular site compete with each other for limited resources. When the competition becomes excessive during dry spells, major diebacks occur. In many Western climates (characterized by dry summers and cold winters) biological decomposition is too slow to offset the fuel buildup. More living and dead fuels are present, both in larger landscape patches and in the vertical structure of the forest. Any ignition in dry weather is likely to result in a major wildfire that behaves so violently that suppression may be impossible. Such intense fires kill plant communities that were historically tolerant of milder fires. The heat from these intense, unnatural fires causes serious and often permanent soil damage.”
Prudent forest management calls for selective thinning. The resultant wood can be used as either lumber or fuel. We gain energy while helping the forest.
This is another situation in which the advantages of biomass energy are multifaceted.
Reduction of Air pollution and Acid Rain
To the extent biomass fuels replace fossil fuel and reduce the severity of forest fires and field burns, they reduce air pollution and the addition of nitrogen and sulfur compounds responsible for acid rain to the atmosphere. As you can see, there are several advantages of biomass energy. It will never completely provide out energy needs, but it certainly is a good addition to our energy mix.