In short, biomass energy is the process of incinerating organic waste, such as dead trees, branches, yard clippings, crops, wood chips or sawdust, to create energy. Biomass is converted into energy through a relatively simple process, especially when compared to other manners used to obtain energy. First, the organic waste is collected at biomass power plants. The organic waste may have come from factories, farms or municipalities that participate in collecting homeowners’ yard waste. The waste is then burned at the biomass power plant in a furnace. The heat from the incineration boils water in an adjacent boiler and the steam then turns turbines and powers generators creating energy.
Many people are turning to biomass energy because biomass appears to be a more renewable, green energy source. First, there is a lot of organic waste out there that usually ends up in landfills. For example, California generates more than sixty-million tons of organic waste annually, and five-million tons of that is used to generate electricity! Biomass energy provides a way to reduce landfill sizes and landfill emissions. The second reason is that biomass energy is considered a carbon-neutral source of energy. Before organic waste becomes waste, it is comprised of living plants. These plants consume and store carbon dioxide during their life cycle. When incinerated, the organic waste releases the same amount of carbon dioxide that it consumed during its life cycle. For example, one cornhusk soaks up the same amount of energy during its lifecycle that it releases once incinerated. Then, as more plants are replanted to replace the incinerated ones, it will close the carbon dioxide cycle.
Biomass energy, which includes all forms of organic waste (including animal waste), currently supplies about fifteen times more energy to Americans than both wind and solar power. However, biomass energy accounts for just over 1% of the total electricity used in the United States.
Advocates of biomass energy state that we will see numerous environmental benefits—improved air quality, reduced erosion and the reduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Opponents of biomass energy claim that it is not a carbon-neutral source of energy, since the biomass power plants consume a substantial amount of energy that is not included in the typical equation that makes biomass neutral. In theory, one cornhusk will consume the same amount of carbon dioxide in its life cycle that it will emit once incinerated, however, there are other costs in the process, such as transporting biomass and powering the power plant. So, in the end, the entire process of converting organic waste to energy may not be carbon-neutral.
Biomass energy is an interesting topic because we are still debating whether or not it is better than the use of fossil fuels. There are many benefits and there are also many drawbacks. EnviroCitizen.org suggests that you do your own research and find out what your position on biomass energy is.