Biomass energy may be the pathway to lower carbon footprint and energy independence for America.
When the conversation turns to renewable energy, most people will immediately think of solar power or wind energy, rarely does biomass energy come to mind. However, humanity has been using biomass energy since we first learned to cook food over an open flame, well before we harnessed the power of wind, solar or even fossil fuels. This is likely due to many people not considering biomass a renewable or clean energy since some form of burning is required. While it is true that burning the biomass is often needed to release the energy, it deserves a second look as a classic renewable energy.
Biomass is comprised of plant material, agricultural waste, vegetation, municipal waste or other organic materials that can be burned directly or processed into biofuels. Wood is an excellent example of biomass that is used for energy production; it has also been the cornerstone of renewable biomass energy. Another example of biomass energy comes from landfills, the gases such as methane are harnessed and piped to power plants where it is burned and turned into energy. These forms of biomass can be considered renewable energy sources as long as the material is produced using sustainable methods.
By definition, the energy produced by means of burning biomass is not a clean energy, since it does release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, the carbon dioxide released by burning biomass is largely balanced by the carbon dioxide it consumes during its own growth, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. This of course is dependent on how the materials were harvested, for example, clearing an entire forest for biomass energy could increase the carbon-footprint. Therefore, it is best to use previously cleared land, such as farms, to grow specific biomass materials.
Much of the controversy around biomass energy comes from the fact that combustion still occurs, releasing greenhouse gases. If that is the case, why would renewable energy advocates and environmentalists push for the use of the fuels? The fact is biomass can actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere when compared to the burning of fossil fuels. This is because the carbon dioxide found in fossil fuels was captured or trapped during photosynthesis millions of years ago, thus it is essentially a new greenhouse gas to the world today.
Societies around the globe are used to obtaining their energy from some form of combustion process, a large portion of which is from coal fired power plants. Here in the Unites States, the political conversation has often turned to energy independence, reducing imports of foreign oil. Biomass could provide a substantial portion of America’s energy needs in a sustainable method, using only domestic resources. Experts such as the Union of Concerned Scientists agree that if developed properly, biomass could help the U.S. transition to a clean energy future, providing that stepping stone to true clean energy.
While many sustainability experts and environmentalists would prefer to see a 100% clean energy future, we should be open to all paths that could lead us to a sustainable earth. Biomass energy may just be the pathway to energy independence and a lower carbon footprint.