What is biomass energy? It’s not fossil fuel energy, so if you’re a good student of alternative fuel sources you should know about this low-tech energy option.
I say low-tech because as long as people have been lighting fires they’ve been using biomass energy. But please don’t confuse biomass energy with the term biomass, which means the total weight of all organisms in a given area.
Biomass or biomass energy, for our purposes, means organic matter used as fuel. Organic matter equals plants, animals, waste products, or anything that is carbon based and can burn. In the UK they acquire biomass from 5 different types of energy:
“Virgin wood, from forestry, arboricultural activities or from wood processing
Energy crops: high yield crops grown specifically for energy applications
Agricultural residues: residues from agriculture harvesting or processing
Food waste, from food and drink manufacture, preparation and processing, and post-consumer waste
Industrial waste and co-products from manufacturing and industrial processes.”
Biomass is a carbon based fuel source just like fossil fuels, but fossil fuels utilize carbon that was sequestered from the atmosphere millions of years ago. Time is one of the major problems with fossil fuel energy because burning them releases old carbon back into the atmosphere leading to increased atmospheric carbon levels.
Biomass proponents argue that growing plant based biofuels takes carbon out of the atmosphere and returns it to the atmosphere only when it’s burned. If the burning aligns with replanting and growth then this maintains a closed carbon cycle. Whether the biomass is energy dense enough to offset the carbon cost of manufacturing and growing is another question.
Many countries incinerate waste as at least part of their biomass energy solution, which frees up landfill space, but this is usually a very small percentage. For example, “Scotland creates 3 million tons per year of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste), 90% of which goes to landfill, 5% to recycling and reuse, and 5% to incineration (DETR, SEPA). Incineration is therefore a small part of waste management for Scotland when dealing with MSW.”
The UK and Ireland are two countries currently developing new biomass plants. RES (Renewable Energy Systems) based in the UK is working on several biomass plants including one at Alexandra Dock which should generate enough energy to power 250,000 British homes.