Is biomass environmentally friendly source of energy?

Biomass is lately receiving plenty of attention, not just in United States but the rest of the world too. Around 1.3 % of total U.S. electricity generation in United States comes from biomass (2022 data). In 2021, biomass provided about 4,835 trillion British thermal units (TBtu), or about 4.8 quadrillion Btu and equal to about 5% of total U.S. primary energy consumption. Of that amount, about 2,316 TBtu were from biofuels (mainly ethanol), 2,087 TBtu were from wood and wood-derived biomass, and 431 TBtu were from the biomass in municipal solid wastes and sewage, animal manure, and agicultural byproducts. ( data)

The increased biomass production could certainly lead to several economic benefits such as new jobs, improved energy security, and reduced need for foreign fuel import, but what about its environmental impact?

Wood is still globally the most used fuel used in the production in biomass meaning that biomass production produces harmful greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and global warming. Trees are huge carbon sinkers and since new trees do not grow overnight increased biomass production could lead to even more greenhouse gases than staying with fossil fuels (it can pass many decades before carbon released by burning biomass can be recaptured by regrowing trees).

Biomass plants can also emit some harmful air pollutants, such as particulate matter. The 2010 Massachusetts study has even concluded that biomass power plants that use wood as fuel are even worse for our planet’s climate than existing coal plants over the next several decades.

This heavy dependence on wood is the major environmental drawback of biomass production. However, the problems of deforestation and overharvesting can be avoided with strict regulation of what materials are harvested and how are they burned.

Some energy experts argue that sustainable biomass production is very difficult to achieve because large-scale biomass industry would require large quantities of residual material to feed the industry, which would likely result in harvesting whole trees from tracts of land that never would have been logged otherwise.

At this point in time and with currently available technologies sustainable biomass production is only possible by burning waste wood but there doesn’t seem to be enough waste wood to support large-scale biomass industry on global level.

To conclude, from the environmental point of view biomass is only acceptable if it gets produced from waste wood. Biomass production mustn’t be used as the excuse for deforestation because this only opens the door for even more greenhouse gas emissions, and even bigger climate change impact.