Dear EarthTalk: What is “biomass energy,” and where in the world is it used?
—Kourosh Khazaii, Vancouver, BC
Biomass energy is power generated by burning any organic plant matter, including wood. As such it was perhaps humankind’s earliest source of fuel. Wood is by far the most widely used biomass energy source, but other plants are also used, as are residues from agriculture or forestry and the organic components of municipal and industrial wastes.
Environmentalists are enthusiastic about expanding the use of biomass energy because it is fundamentally a renewable energy source and has the potential, if widely used, for greatly reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. While the burning of biomass fuels generates carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading greenhouse gas, new plants grown for biomass remove CO2 from the atmosphere. So as long as biomass energy sources continue to be replenished, their net CO2 emissions will be zero.
Biomass, because it is available on a recurring basis, is the world’s most plentiful fuel source, and it is second only to hydropower in efficiency. Thus it is a very viable alternative to burning fossil fuels. Farmers around the world are now cultivating fast-growing trees and grasses specifically for biomass energy use.
Developing countries, especially those in Asia, Latin America and Africa, are currently the primary users of biomass as fuel, mainly because in many locales they lack access to other forms of energy. In the developing world, biomass makes up almost a third of total energy use. By contrast, the U.S. uses biomass for only four percent of its total energy supply.
Many countries are making concerted efforts to increase their use of biomass. Australia is generally recognized as the leader in developing biomass projects, due to the close cooperation there between government agencies, research facilities and industry. Britain is also working on some significant biomass projects, including the establishment of power stations fueled by fast-growing crops.
The International Energy Association reports that biomass has the potential to supply 40 percent of the world’s energy needs. Studies by the Shell International Petroleum Company and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are equally if not more optimistic and project that biomass could satisfy between one-quarter and one-half of the world’s demand for energy by the middle of this century. This projection implies a world full of “bio-refineries,” where plants provide many of the materials we now obtain from coal, oil and natural gas.
Looking ahead, some analysts have begun to talk about a “carbohydrate economy” in which plants would be a major source of not only electricity and fuels, but also construction materials, clothes, inks, paints—even industrial chemicals.
- Biomass Energy Research Association, (800) 247-1755, www.bera1.org
- International Energy Association, (011) 33-1-40-57-65-00, www.iea.org
- Shell International Petroleum Company, (888) GO-SHELL, www.shell.com
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, www.ipcc.ch