Biomass is a renewable source of energy that can be converted into various forms of power, including heat and electricity.
Common materials used to generate biomass include forest debris, waste from crops, industrial wood wastes, animal and human wastes, and agricultural residue.
Can Biomass Produce Electricity? How?
Yes. Biomass can generate electricity through direction combustion, anaerobic digestion, and gasification.
Let’s consider each option in detail.
- Direct Combustion
A common way to produce electricity from biomass is by burning matter directly in a process known as thermal generation.
In this method, electricity is not generated directly from combusting the biomass.
Instead, the biomass matter is burnt at high temperatures to heat giant boilers filled with water.
As the water in the boilers heats up, it turns to steam and creates pressure within the boiler.
The force of the steam then rotates a turbine, which moves a wire coil inside a generator to produce electrical power.
- Anaerobic Digestion
Anaerobic digestion happens when microorganisms break down organic matter in the absence of oxygen to produce biogas.
Biogas is a renewable energy source with numerous applications, including heat and electricity generation and fuel for vehicles.
The application of biogas harvested from anaerobic digestion depends on the quality of the biogas.
In industrial settings, biogas is often purified to remove water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other contaminants.
Extricating these compounds from biogas typically increases its energy value and makes it more efficient.
Biomass gasification involves advanced thermal conversion technology to transform biomass wastes into combustible gasses, which are then fed into a generator to produce electricity.
Is Biomass Clean Energy?
While biomass is generally environmentally friendly, the methods employed to generate power may have adverse effects on the environment.
Burning large trees to produce electricity, for instance, releases a lot of carbon monoxide into the environment, thus causing pollution.
Learn more: Can Biomass Be Used For Transportation
How Much Electricity Is Produced By Biomass?
According to an article published in Biomass Magazine, a large-sized 200MW plant can convert 30 to 39 percent of the thermal energy in biomass into electricity.
By contrast, a small 25 MW plant can turn 20 to 25 percent of biomass thermal energy into electricity.
Statistics from the U.S Energy Information Administration reported that biomass fuels produced 71.4 billion kilowatts of electricity in 2016.
This is equivalent to 2% of the total amount of electricity generated in the country. However, due to the increase in electricity consumption, we project that the current figures could be higher.
Why Is Biomass Not Widely Used?
The main contention against biomass energy is the polluting effects of burning organic matter.
Burning biomass releases high amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that adversely affect the environment.
Which Type Of Biomass Can Be Used To Generate Electricity?
Several types of organic matter can generate electricity, including sawdust, wood chips, and pellets.
These forms of biomass typically generate electrical energy via combustion or gasification.
Other types of biomass, such as human and animal wastes, can be converted into biogas in an anaerobic digester before being sent into a generator to produce electricity.
Learn more: Can Biomass Be Used in Homes and Businesses?
What Are The Disadvantages Of Biomass?
Although biomass has shown a lot of potential as an alternative fuel source, several drawbacks have prevented its widespread adoption and use.
Some of the disadvantages of biomass include:
- It Is Not Entirely Clean
Despite being a carbon-neutral energy source, biomass fuel isn’t completely clean.
Combusting wood and other organic material releases carbon dioxide and other toxic gases that pollute the environment, albeit much lesser than fossil fuels.
As a result, biomass is a less desirable energy source compared to other renewables such as water.
- Costs Are Much Higher Compared To Alternative Energy Sources
Although the costs of converting biomass to energy are lower compared to most fossil fuels, they are still higher than other forms of renewable energy like solar and wind.
The high cost of biomass energy comes from the need for biomass sources to be replenished, for instance, by planting trees.
Likewise, the actual technology and machinery required to convert biomass into usable energy are often expensive.
- Increased Risk Of Deforestation
Since wood is one of the biggest sources of biomass, cutting down trees to generate energy damage forests.
This deforestation can have adverse effects on the ecosystem such as the destruction of wildlife habitats.
- Biomass Energy May Not Be As Efficient as Fossil Fuels
While biomass fuels are natural, they are often not as efficient as fossil fuels like diesel and gasoline.
In fact, biofuels are often mixed with other fossil fuels to make them more effective.
- Requires A lot of Space
Industrial-scale production of biomass requires plenty of space to grow raw materials.
Unfortunately, the space may not be readily available in large urban settlements and cities.
Because production plants need to be close to the fuel sources to minimize transport and storage costs, it’s much harder to find suitable locations near urban areas.
Is Biomass Better Than Fossil Fuels?
Biomass is a good alternative to fossil fuels since it provides a reliable renewable source of energy, unlike fossil fuels which are limited.
Likewise, biofuels offer a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels since they emit less carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.
While biomass is not as clean a source of renewable energy compared to water, solar, and wind, it might be one of the best alternatives we have for fossil fuels.
As a carbon-neutral fuel, biomass emits fewer greenhouse gasses into the environment compared to fossil fuels.
So, the increased adoption of biomass and less reliance on fossil fuels should be encouraged to ease the impact of runaway greenhouse emissions on the planet.