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The inconvenient truth behind biomass energy

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For years, the burning of biomass has been viewed as an environmentally friendly way of producing energy. The advantage of biomass is that it often is a waste product. To be able to produce energy in a relatively sustainable way from waste is of course a great prospect for the future and our world. For a long time biomass energy has has the reputation of being a better alternative than energy from the burning of fossil fuels and coal. Biomass energy projects are also still receiving green energy subsidies, In the United States as well as in Europe.

However, recent studies are increasingly showing that this reputation of biomass energy is far from justified. Some studies even show that the burning of biomass creates more carbon (co2) emissions than the burning of coal. Is it time to reconsider the position of biomass with reference to other energy sources?

What is biomass?

First of all, it’s important to outline the definition of biomass. In short, biomass most often refers to plants or the remains of plants that are not used for food or the feeding of animals like cattle. The most used type of biomass for energy is of course wood. This has been used by humankind continuously since fire was invented. Another example of biomass is pulping liquor, which is a waste product from processing wood in the paper industry.
Biomass energy to electricity carbon

Furthermore any type of plant that is not for food can be used as a biomass fuel, as long as it has a certain amount of dryness. Think of your own biodegradable waste, like banana and apple peels. All in all, it is clear that the variety of possible biomass sources is endless.

Biomass can either be used as is, through combustion for creating heat or it can be used after being converted to a type of biofuel. The production of biofuel can either be achieved by thermal, chemical or biochemical methods.

Is burning biomass carbon neutral?

Many biomass associations claim that biomass energy is completely carbon neutral. They state that plants and trees absorb carbon when they grow and release the exact same amount of carbon again when they die or get burned. In other words, the total amount of carbon or co2 in the atmosphere remains the same.
Burning pellets biomass

This claim is quite easy to oppose. Every tree that is burned for biomass energy adds to the amount of carbon in the air, because there is one less tree on Earth to re-absorb the emitted carbon. Deforestation has been skyrocketing the past couple of decades, it is simply impossible for the remaining trees to effectively re-absorb the carbon that is emitted by the burning of biomass. Even when a tree is replanted for every tree that gets cut down for biomass burning, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere will increase. Obviously, a small tree does not absorb the same amount of carbon as the large tree that has been cut down. So, the fact is that the total carbon absorption capacity decreases.

Carbon emissions from burning biomass

It is clear that any burning of fuel creates carbon emissions, but it is interesting to see the exact amount of carbon that is released when burning biomass. Of course, the exact amount varies per method of burning. For example, burning wood in your fireplace is one of the most inefficient and thus most polluting way of burning biomass.

The United Kingdom recently financially boosted biomass projects and stated their aspiration to transfer to biomass for generating electricity instead of coal. At that instant, Britain’s largest nature conservation organization, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, together with environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace released a report on biomass. In it, they stated that the burning of whole trees (especially conifers) to generate electricity results in a 49% higher carbon emission than the burning of coal.
Biomass gasification process carbon emissions

Another report, by Dr. Mary S. Booth from 2014, claims several similar points regarding the subject of biomass. In this report she did a thorough research of 88 air emissions permits from woodburning power plants in the United States. The report results confirm earlier indications that even the cleanest American biomass plants emit 50% more carbon dioxide than coal burning plants. Also, the 88 studied biomass plants produce more than double the amount of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, soot, and volatile organic matter as coal burning plants do.

Governments on biomass burning

Up until now, governments still view biomass as a sustainable alternative for coal and other fossil fuels. The rules and regulations concerning biomass are therefore more lenient than for other fuels.

One example is that in Europe the carbon emission from the burning of biomass is not counted when calculating the annual total of a country’s co2 emissions. This calculation is important, because European countries have a maximum of emissions they can produce, to prevent pollution of the air and climate change. The idea is that biomass creates so little carbon that it is not necessary to count it, but this can possibly be an expensive facade.
Wood pellet demand in UK

The other example is from the United States, where in May 2016 an amendment of the Murkowski Energy Bill was proposed and passed. This amendment enabled the burning of biomass to be treated as being carbon neutral. A major step backwards, if you ask us.

One thing that becomes clear from these results, is that it’s absolutely necessary to research the carbon emissions from burning biomass more extensively. As with any large business segment, there are many different interests concerned here. However, it is quintessential for our world and environment to create a clear and global outlook on the effects of burning biomass. Is it truly worth it to have a false sense of sustainability and to just go on doing what we’re doing?

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