From the NRDC website: “Biomass power comes from plants — crop and forest residues, corn kernels and stalks, energy crops, perennial grasses, and fast-growing trees like poplars, to name a few. It can be used to make liquid biofuels that serve as alternatives to oil, or to produce heat or electricity to power our homes. Biomass power accounts for roughly half of all the renewable energy produced in the United States, and we use more of it than any other country in the world.” Given Brazil’s heavy use of ethanol made from sugar cane, that’s saying something. U.S. ethanol made from corn is probably the reason.
Here’s how biomass looks in the U.S. It produces roughly 3% of America’s energy.
The NRDC adds the useful caveat: “Most of the biomass energy we use today comes from unsustainable sources that are not an improvement over fossil fuels: ethanol, made by fermenting food crops like corn and sugarcane, which require large amounts of land, water and chemicals to grow; and wood or even whole trees from forests, which are often “co-fired” with coal in power plants, increasing global warming pollution and threatening our forests as well.
Focusing on food crops like corn or soybeans as sources of biofuels can have unintended economic and environmental consequences. Harvesting these crops for biofuels could raise the price of feed for livestock and possibly food as well. Because these crops are grown using large amounts of fertilizer, land, and water, water quality and availability could suffer, due to soil erosion and pollution from fertilizer runoff. All in all, the production of corn ethanol creates more carbon pollution than the oil it is supposed to replace.
Wood can also be a problematic source of biofuels, if it’s not sustainably harvested. Demand for wood pellets is expected to increase significantly over the next few years, as European countries strive to meet renewable energy goals of 20 percent by 2020. Pellet manufacturers in the southeastern United States are gearing up to satisfy this growing market, as European suppliers will not be able to meet this demand — unfortunately, they are increasingly looking to whole trees for energy.
Burning a whole tree not only releases stored carbon — it takes away the tree’s ability to absorb more carbon in the future. Harvesting whole trees for energy increases carbon pollution and degrades our forests, one of our best defenses against global warming. Furthermore, forests in the southern United States already produce more wood and paper products than anywhere else in the world, so increased demand from the bioenergy market could put even more pressure on these overworked ecosystems.”
Worldwide, biomass is a major source of energy, about 12% of all energy consumed worldwide.
It is used especially in the developing world. Sadly, the biomass is really just branches and dung and is burned over simple stoves for cooking, contributing to or directly causing about 4 million deaths a year.
Europe is a big fan of biomass, especially when it is not their biomass being used. They import large quantities of U.S. wood pellets for use in power generation, usually alongside coal.
Given the very real negative impacts of biomass on the health of those in the developing world and the negligible benefits to the climate from most uses, the rush to biomass seen over the past 15 years seems misguided.
Indeed, I would say that every ton of biomass not burned (with some exceptions, such as Brazilian ethanol) is perhaps of more benefit to humanity than an equivalent number of negawatts.
Biomass as it stands today—not efficient, not useful, camouflaging the damage done to the developing world–seems like a modern example of the idiot’s solution: ‘We must do something. This is something. We must do this.’