Using biomass for energy has positive and negative effects

Biomass as an energy source is an alternative to fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas). Burning either fossil fuels or biomass releases carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. However, the plants that are the source of biomass capture a nearly equivalent amount of CO2 through photosynthesis while they are growing, which can make biomass a carbon-neutral energy source.

Switchgrass growing on a test plot for biomass production

Panicum Virgatum (Switchgrass) Being Grown

Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Burning wood

Using wood, wood pellets, and charcoal for heating and cooking can replace fossil fuels and may result in lower CO2 emissions overall. Wood can be harvested from forests, woodlots that have to be thinned, or from urban trees that fall down or have to be cut down.

Wood smoke contains harmful pollutants like carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Modern wood-burning stoves, pellet stoves, and fireplace inserts can reduce the amount of particulates from burning wood. Wood and charcoal are major cooking and heating fuels in poor countries, but if people harvest the wood faster than trees can grow, it causes deforestation. Planting fast-growing trees for fuel and using fuel-efficient cooking stoves can help slow deforestation and improve the environment.

Burning municipal solid waste (MSW) or wood waste

Burning municipal solid waste (MSW, or garbage) to produce energy in waste-to-energy plants means that less waste is buried in landfills. On the other hand, burning garbage produces air pollution and releases the chemicals and substances in the waste into the air. Some of these chemicals can be hazardous to people and the environment if they are not properly controlled.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) applies strict environmental rules to waste-to-energy plants, and requires that waste-to-energy plants use air pollution control devices such as scrubbers, fabric filters, and electrostatic precipitators to capture air pollutants.

Scrubbers clean emissions from waste-to-energy facilities by spraying a liquid into the combustion gases to neutralize the acids present in the stream of emissions. Fabric filters and electrostatic precipitators also remove particles from the combustion gases. The particles—called fly ash—are then mixed with the ash that is removed from the bottom of the waste-to-energy furnace.

A waste-to-energy furnace burns at high temperatures (1,800°F to 2,000°F), which breaks down the chemicals in MSW into simpler, less harmful compounds.

Disposing ash from waste-to-energy plants

Ash can contain high concentrations of various metals that were present in the original waste. Textile dyes, printing inks, and ceramics, for example, may contain lead and cadmium.

Separating waste before burning can solve part of the problem. Because batteries are the largest source of lead and cadmium in municipal waste, they should not be included in regular trash. Florescent light bulbs should also not be put in regular trash because they contain small amounts of mercury.

The EPA tests ash from waste-to-energy plants to make sure that it is not hazardous. The test looks for chemicals and metals that could contaminate ground water. MSW landfills use ash that is considered safe as a cover layer for their landfills, or they add it to concrete to make cement blocks.

Collecting landfill gas or biogas

Biogas forms as a result of biological processes in sewage treatment plants, waste landfills, and livestock manure management systems. Biogas is composed mainly of methane (a greenhouse gas) and CO2. Many facilities that produce biogas capture it and burn the methane for heat or to generate electricity. This electricity is considered renewable and, in many states, contributes to meeting state renewable portfolio standards (RPS). This electricity may replace electricity generation from fossil fuels and can result in a net reduction in CO2 emissions. Burning methane produces CO2, but because methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, the overall greenhouse effect is lower.

Liquid biofuels: ethanol and biodiesel

The federal government promotes ethanol use as a transportation fuel to help reduce oil imports and CO2 emissions. In 2007, the government set a target to use 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. As a result, nearly all gasoline now sold in the United States contains some ethanol.

Biofuels may be carbon-neutral because the plants that are used to make biofuels (such as corn and sugarcane for ethanol and soy beans and palm oil trees for biodiesel) absorb CO2 as they grow and may offset the CO2 emissions when biofuels are produced and burned.

Growing plants for biofuels is controversial because the land, fertilizers, and energy for growing biofuel crops could be used to grow food crops instead. In some parts of the world, large areas of natural vegetation and forests have been cut down to grow sugar cane for ethanol and soybeans and palm oil trees for biodiesel. The U.S. government supports efforts to develop alternative sources of biomass that do not compete with food crops and that use less fertilizer and pesticides than corn and sugar cane. The U.S. government also supports methods to produce ethanol that require less energy than conventional fermentation. Ethanol can also be made from waste paper, and biodiesel can be made from waste grease and oils and even algae.

Ethanol and gasoline-ethanol blends burn cleaner and have higher octane ratings than pure gasoline, but they have higher evaporative emissions from fuel tanks and dispensing equipment. These evaporative emissions contribute to the formation of harmful, ground-level ozone and smog. Gasoline requires extra processing to reduce evaporative emissions before it is blended with ethanol. Biodiesel combustion produces fewer sulfur oxides, less particulate matter, less carbon monoxide, and fewer unburned and other hydrocarbons, but it does produce more nitrogen oxide than petroleum diesel.