Sunday, January 16, 2011

Biomass against climate change

Climate change is one of the most difficult challenges in world's history, and world is constantly looking at possible options to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels when burned create harmful carbon emissions that end up in Earth's atmosphere, and contribute to global warming phenomenon.

Fossil fuels are still dominant sources of energy but world looks to be ready to go for alternatives in order to decrease global carbon emissions. One of these alternatives is also biomass which has good potential to significantly decrease our dependence on highly polluting fossil fuels.

Biomass is not the perfect source to tackle climate change because as said above biomass is connected with significant carbon emissions. Some would even argue that biomass used as a fuel places equally high levels of CO2 into the global atmosphere. During its growth the plant indeed takes up CO2 from the atmosphere but once this plant is used as the fuel the previously taken amount of CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This is the reason why biomass if often referred to as carbon-neutral energy source.

Biomass in United States – Quick numbers

Biomass fuels currently provide about 4% of the energy used in the United States, and the most common form of biomass in US is wood. It is estimated that in the United States wood and wood waste provide about 2% of the totally used energy. The existing biomass power generating industry in the United States consists of approximately 11,000 MW.

The New Hope Power Partnership located in South Bay, Florida is currently the largest biomass power plant in North America. The 140 MW facility uses sugar cane fiber and recycled urban wood as fuel to generate not only enough power for its large milling and refining operations but also to supply renewable electricity for around 60,000 US homes. It was calculated that this facility reduces dependence on oil by more than one million barrels per year.

Americans produce more and more waste each year. Today, each American throws away about 4.5 pounds of trash every day, and this trash could with proper technology be turned into effective source of energy.


World not only knows that fossil fuels are bad for environment but it is also well aware that fossil fuels will not last forever. These are the main reasons why there are so many researchers oriented on alternative energy resources. Should we also give biomass energy a chance?

To understand the problems of biomass as an energy form, the most important thing to understand is the biomass cycle that occurs on the planet. As already said above the biomass, primarily in the form of plants, uses carbon to grow, meaning that the biosphere effectively acts as a sponge for carbon. This sponge effect, however is not perfect and certainly has its limits. The main limit is the fact that biomass can only suck up so much carbon at one time, meaning that when there is too much carbon in the atmosphere or there isn’t enough plants available (deforestation and such), we run the risk of overwhelming the atmosphere with even more carbon emissions. More carbon emissions means more warming and more impact to climate change, and if major scientific predictions are true then this is certainly something we want to avoid.

Taking this well debated biomass cycle into consideration we could say that the negatives of all biomass energy production are that they create carbon emissions. If we were to use our dear friend the caveman once again, we could for instance say that a caveman sitting next to a fire in a cave is using biomass energy (burning wood) to produce heat, but the black smoke coming out of the cave is a very harmful carbon pollutant. Given the current proportion of climate change issue, biomass energy doesn't really resolve the amount of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere. However proponents of biomass energy may think otherwise.

Proponents of biomass say that biomass energy is much better energy source compared to currently dominant fossil fuels. The main thesis of this opinion is that plants have taken in significantly smaller amounts of carbon gases over a shorter period of time than fossil fuels. Thus, burning biomass is really a carbon neutral situation. Even if we accept the fact that biomass is indeed carbon neutral this doesn't help us much because we are not cutting down our carbon emissions but are in fact keeping our current output. And given the magnitude of climate change problem this simply isn't enough. It is better than fossil fuels, but simply not enough.

There's no doubt that biomass will continue to be the hot topic of many lively discussions in years to come. Biomass is definitely not the ultimate answer as the perfect alternative fuel, but is it at least some partial answer? It is still too early to tell.

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