Biomass for Renewable Energy: Pros and Cons

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  • 0:06 Energy
  • 1:09 Biomass Energy
  • 3:15 Converting Biomass to Energy
  • 5:23 Pros of Biomass Energy
  • 6:26 Cons of Biomass Energy
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Biomass is organic material that can be used to generate heat, electricity, and even fuel. In this lesson, you will learn about the advantages of this abundant and renewable energy source as well as the disadvantages.


It doesn't come as a surprise to anyone that our modern world consumes a lot of energy. We rely on it to get out of bed on time, cook our food, heat our homes, fuel our vehicles, and to power a whole host of conveniences.

Most developed countries, like the United States, rely on non-renewable fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas, for energy. However, burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, which are gases in the atmosphere that can trap heat. Also, because they are non-renewable, they will eventually run out.

We are so dependent on energy that I bet you would agree that it would be wonderful if it simply grew on trees. Well, good news! It does. We can create heat, electricity, and fuel from things such as plants, trees, and even organic waste materials.

Biomass Energy

In this lesson, you will learn how biomass can be converted into a clean and renewable energy source. Biomass is organic materials, including plants and animal wastes. This term is easy to recall if you remember that the prefix bio refers to living things, like plants and animals. Biomass energy, therefore, is energy derived from organic materials.

Now, we know that plants and trees use sunlight to make carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water using the process of photosynthesis. This energy from the sun gets stored in the plants and transferred to any animal that eats the plants, which is why we can use plants and even animal wastes, like manure, to make biomass energy. When these sources are burned or decompose, they release carbon dioxide and water along with their stored energy.

There are many types of plants and organic wastes that can be used to produce energy. Energy crops, which are sometimes referred to as 'power crops,' are crops grown to be used as fuel, not food. These are generally high-yielding crops, trees, and grasses that require very little care and can be grown at a low cost.

Organic waste from industries such as forestry, agriculture, and manufacturing can be used as a source of biomass energy. Biomass is so versatile that waste generated in cities and urban life, such as old shipping pallets, construction site wastes, and yard wastes, can be used.

Using biomass for energy is nothing new. From the earliest days, man has been burning wood, a form of biomass energy, to cook food and stay warm. Today, biomass is still used for these purposes, but it can also be converted into a gas or oil to generate heat or electricity and even fuel for transportation needs.

Converting Biomass to Energy

Now, there are several ways to convert biomass into energy. The simplest way to use biomass is to burn it. Biomass can be burned in boilers to produce steam. This high-pressure steam is then used to spin a turbine that ultimately generates electricity.

Although burning biomass by itself is a proven method of energy production, it can be inefficient. A process known as co-firing can be used to improve energy efficiency when biomass is burned. Co-firing is defined as burning two forms of fuel simultaneously. Traditional power plants can combine biomass with coal and burn them at the same time. With co-firing, less coal is required, thereby reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Biomass does not have to be burned to be converted to energy. When biomass is heated in a low-oxygen environment, it can be broken down and refined to produce fuel gas, such as methane gas. This process of converting organic material into gas is known as gasification. The gas that is produced can be captured and used in gas turbines and other systems to generate electricity. Gasification is more efficient than burning biomass and results in even lower emissions of greenhouse gases.

Another way biomass can be converted into energy is through fermentation. Fermentation is the process of breaking down carbohydrates using bacteria, yeasts, or enzymes. Fermentation is the process most people think of that turns grapes into wine, but biomass liquids can also be fermented, which converts the biomass to alcohol, a type of fuel. In a similar fashion, corn can be turned into ethanol, which is a type of biofuel, or fuel made from biomass. Ethanol can be mixed with gasoline and used for our transportation needs.

Pros of Biomass Energy

There are many advantages to using biomass for energy. Biomass is a type of renewable energy, which means that it can be naturally regenerated.

It's also an abundant source of energy. Not only can we grow crops specifically for energy, but we can also utilize organic wastes that might otherwise simply rot or end up in a landfill.

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