What are The Problems Associated With Biomass Energy?
Biomass energy is in the news - but what are the most common problems associated with this type of energy? Potentially, this is a great source of renewable energy that is as close to a zero carbon footprint as possible.
Biomass encompasses many different types of fuel. It can be a plant such as corn or switchgrass, the methane produced in a landfill or the garbage discarded by households every day.
The potential for use of biomass energy is tremendous but the reality is our technology has not caught up to the potential.
Some of the common ways biomass energy is used and has been used for generations produce a high level of carbon dioxide. This occurs when wood is burned.
It becomes more of the a problem when the wood is cut for the purpose of burning as we create more carbon dioxide while removing a living plant that helps control carbon by its very existence.
Cutting down forests to use wood as a biomass fuel has damaged many third world countries that did not plan for any forest conservation or renewal.
Trees in a forest capture and hold carbon. By cutting live trees and burning the wood, we double the negative affect on the environment. This is now understood and accepted but for some areas the knowledge comes too late.
There are countries where the forest has been clear-cut to burn wood for heat and cooking. The resulting living conditions in a poor country are even worse once the trees are gone as land is open to flooding and erosion.
Pollution of Biomass Energy
Biomass fuels such as ethanol are no less a pollutant than fossil fuels. Combustion of ethanol is incomplete and this produces the black carbon which is known to increase global warming.
Use of ethanol as a gasoline additive is promoted as reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. An entire prosperous industry has grown in recent years around the production and distribution of ethanol.
Though some experts claim ethanol has a damaging effect on automobile engines over time and is not better for the environment, the product continues to be used as the profits are too high to abandon.
Use of Food Crops to Make Biomass Fuels
Another problem with biofuels is that they are created using food crops. Instead of being exported to feed people, a field of corn will be harvested and sold to a huge corporation that produces biofuels.
The price of corn in particular has risen rapidly in the past ten years. More farms are abandoning other crops to grow corn as the market for corn is stable and prices are high.
Thus, not only is less corn available for food but other grain harvests are also being reduced due to ethanol production. This has led to an ongoing argument that is referred to as the "food vs. fuel debate".
The debate is now a global argument as biofuels support a rather high style of living in the western world while the exported food may not be sufficient to feed populations in third world countries.
Another common problem is the cost. Producing and transporting biomass is expensive. Biomass is "mass".
When natural gas is transported, it can be cooled to a point that reduces the volume of gas to one sixth of its size. With biomass the only reduction is compacting of garbage or waste.
Transporting huge trees, factory wood waste and crops require a huge shipping industry. This puts more rail cars on the tracks and more semi trucks on the roads. This, in turn, uses more fuel and creates more greenhouse gases.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the cost of building processing plants. The plant must be designed to collect process and purify biofuel. Research in the future may offer answers to the problems of biomass fuel costs but currently technology lags behind potential.
Biomass fuels are less economical than fossil fuels. Biofuels do not create the same amount of energy and do not burn as efficient as fossil fuels. On the other hand, biomass fuels are renewable and fossil fuels will eventually be depleted.
Ethanol production also depends on the seasons of farming. This is one reason switchgrass is currently being research to use for ethanol.
Currently, the crops used are only harvested during one or two seasons of the year. Ethanol must be produced during those seasons and stored to provide fuel during crop off seasons.
Biomass fuels are a subject of hot debate in industrial and scientific communities. Common problems of biomass produced energy are cost, transportation, seasonal restrictions and the efficiency (or lack of efficiency) of the fuels produced.
Of the renewable fuels that may provide our energy needs in the future, biomass may be the oldest but it is also the least developed. The basics of burning biomass are well known but the potential has yet to be developed.