The oldest and best-known use of biomass fuel dates back to the bonfires our early ancestors used to keep warm. Today, burning wood pellets, dried wood chips and green wood chips has become an established alternative to using coal, oil and other non-renewable petroleum products for heating throughout much of the world. Here we’ll take a look at a few of the many benefits of biomass fuel.
According to the Department of Energy, “Biomass is any organic material that has stored sunlight in the form of chemical energy, such as plants, agricultural crops or residues, municipal wastes, and algae.”
1. Biomass fuel is renewable
Trees, grasses, algae and other organic materials can be regrown on a continuous basis. As they grow, they “breathe” carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. By removing CO2 from the atmosphere those plants and trees help to mitigate the effects of climate change.
On the other hand, it took millions of years to convert plant and animal remains to sources that yield petroleum products. Once those non-renewable resources are gone, they’re gone forever. The Department of Energy estimates that the world will exhaust all fossil fuels in the next 50 to 120 years. The day will come when alternate sources of energy are needed. Biomass fuels using wood can be regrown without huge capital outlays and are positioned to replace fossil fuels in the years ahead.
2. Biomass fuel is near-carbon neutral
Trees and plants consume carbon dioxide throughout their entire life cycle. Through photosynthesis, the carbon dioxide is combined with water and energy from the sun to produce glucose, which gives the plant the energy it needs to grow. When the trees and plants are burned in a biomass furnace or boiler (or when they decay naturally), the process releases CO back into the atmosphere. Thus, the carbon removed from the atmosphere during the life cycle of the tree or plant is simply being returned into the environment so it can be used again by a new generation of plants and trees.
Biomass is noted as “near-carbon neutral” due to the use of fossil fuels as a part of the refining process and transport of wood pellets and chips. On the other hand, this is often seen as a moot point since fossil fuels also utilize fossil fuels in their refinement and transport.
3. Biomass fuel can save money while reducing greenhouse gas emissions
A landmark study reported in the journal Environmental Science and Technology shows that burning biomass fuel rather than oil for heating could save consumers in the northeast quadrant of the U.S. as much as $3.9 billion annually. Switching from oil to biomass would “decarbonize energy supply with regionally sourced feedstock, while also reducing imported oil,” according to the report.
4. Biomass fuel is readily available
Much like wind and energy from the sun, biomass is readily available almost everywhere in the world, but especially in northern New England where forests cover most of the landscape. The availability of biomass—whether from wood, plants or algae—means biomass will never face the challenges encountered in the quest to recover fossil fuels from deep within the earth. For instance, there’s no need to explore for biomass as there is for fossil fuels. There’s no need for expensive drilling, processing and refining. Heating with biomass fuels is a far simpler and more economical process.
5. Biomass fuel is cheaper than oil
Unlike oil, producing biomass fuel requires little upfront capital outlay. There’s no drilling equipment, no high-pressure hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling a mile or more into the earth. There’s no need to build ocean-based drilling platforms, nor to staff them, to operate them, and to maintain them. Likewise, there’s no need to construct thousands of miles of pipelines, and to maintain those over many decades.
All of this means that customers paying for energy to heat their businesses, their schools and universities are no longer footing the bill for the extraordinary costs of exploration, transport, processing and refining of fossil fuels.
Today, for all of the five reasons listed above, the use of biomass fuels is expanding. The best example is the burning of wood chips and pellets in the countries of Northern Europe where a new generation of modern, high efficiency, clean burning gasifying boilers were developed and are widely used in homes, schools and most other types of buildings.
Biomass fueled district heating systems are fairly common there where hot water is piped below ground to supply heat to dozens of buildings–and many generate electricity as well as heat which results in total conversion efficiencies as high as 80%. Efficient, clean-burning modern wood heating systems are also becoming well accepted in northern New England as a way to reduce or eliminate fossil fuel use, to save money and to keep heating dollars circulating in the local economy.