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Biomass is now one of the biggest sources of green energy in the UK. In 2019, biomass energy provided an impressive 11.3% of the UK’s power needs, a 4.6% increase from the previous year. This method of energy production is sustainable and renewable. This means it doesn’t use up finite natural resources and is something that can continue to generate energy indefinitely. So what exactly is biomass energy and is it really good for the environment? We decided to find out.
Over the past few years, the number of biomass plants in the UK has more than doubled. In 2007, there were just 646 biomass plants in the country. A little over a decade later, in 2018, that number had shot up to 1,770. As more biomass plants are built across the UK, the amount of energy generated using this sustainable method is only set to grow.
What is biomass energy?
Biomass energy takes natural, or ‘bio’, materials and turns them into energy. The most common materials used in biomass energy production are plants, wood and waste. These are called biomass feedstocks. Biomass feedstocks can be processed in a number of different ways and are used to make biomass heat and biogas.
Biomass is converted into energy in a number of different ways:
- Direct combustion (burning) to produce heat
- Thermochemical conversion to produce solid, gaseous, and liquid fuels
- Chemical conversion to produce liquid fuels
- Biological conversion to produce liquid and gaseous fuels
The energy generated from these processes is utilised in a variety of ways, but a lot of it enters the National Grid and is used to power our homes and businesses.
What are the 5 types of biomass?
The five main types of biomass are:
- Alcohol fuels
- Landfill gas
The wood that’s used in biomass plants is often the waste that’s produced by other industrial processes. For example, biomass plants use a lot of wood chips, sawdust and pulp from paper mills as well as firewood, wood pellets and lumber. The most common types of agricultural crops used for biomass are corn, soybeans, algae, woody plants and crop and food processing residues.
Another major source of biomass feedstock is municipal solid waste. Things like paper, cotton, wool products and food and garden waste can be processed and turned into energy. Last but not least, animal manure and human sewage can also be used as biomass feedstock. This type of waste is often used to produce biogas.
Where is biomass energy used?
As biomass doesn’t require as much processing as other fuel sources, it’s commonly used in developing countries. For example, Ethiopia gets a whopping 92.9% of its energy from biomass and Tanzania gets 85% of its energy from the fuel source. This is in comparison to the US that uses biomass to generate just 3% of its energy.
- Ethiopia – 92.9%
- Kenya – 75%
- China – 33%
- Brazil – 25%
- Ireland – 16%
- UK – 11%
- Sweden – 9%
- USA – 3%
What are the advantages and disadvantages of biomass?
Like all methods of energy production, biomass has its pros and cons. For example, this method of energy production isn’t completely clean. While biomass is a carbon neutral fuel source, burning wood and other organic materials does create emissions that can pollute the local environment.
Here, we take a look at the main advantages and disadvantages of biomass.
Unlike fossil fuels, biomass isn’t finite. This means it won’t run out and sources can be constantly replenished. However, in order for biomass to be properly sustainable, efforts have to be made to replant the trees, plants and crops that are used as feedstock.
It’s carbon neutral
Because the fuel used to generate biomass energy is part of the natural carbon cycle, the process doesn’t add to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The only carbon that’s released from biomass fuels is what was absorbed by the plants during their life cycles.
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It reduces our dependency on fossil fuels
The more energy we generate from biomass, the less we need to generate from fossil fuels. By reducing the importance of fossil fuels in energy production, we can slowly wean ourselves off of this finite source.
Unlike fossil fuels which are only found in certain places, biomass can be found pretty much everywhere. This means it’s a lot easier for developing countries to generate electricity using the fuel source and it also means countries can be more independent in their energy production.
It reduces waste
A lot of the feedstock used to generate biomass would otherwise have ended up in landfill. By redirecting the waste to biomass plants, we can help to reduce landfill and make the most of our rubbish.
It’s not completely clean
Although carbon neutral, burning biomass can still release other pollutants into the atmosphere. This can damage the local environment, so it’s essential that care is taken during the production process.
It could cause deforestation
If trees are burned without being replaced, biomass energy production could result in deforestation. If large areas of farmland are turned over to biomass production, this can cause a monoculture that can be damaging for the local environment.
To read more on this topic, check out these guides:
How is biomass energy generated?
Biomass energy is generated in a number of ways. Either the biomass is burned directly to produce heat, turned into liquid or solid fuel or processed to make biogas.
Biomass energy examples?
One of the simplest examples of biomass energy is wood burning. Every time you throw a log on a bonfire or a wood burning stove, you’re turning biomass into energy.
Does biomass create pollution?
Biomass energy, while carbon neutral, can create pollution. This means it’s not completely clean and can damage the local environment if it’s not carefully controlled.
Is biomass good or bad for the environment?
Biomass energy is better for the environment than fossil fuel energy but worse for the environment than other types of renewable energy. As processes become more efficient, biomass is likely to become less polluting, and more beneficial, to the environment.
Updated on 31 Mar, 2021