Biomass is a renewable energy source that has been used around the world by humans for thousands of years. However, it has recently been gaining popularity again with the growing need to find cleaner and longer lasting alternatives for fossil fuels. It already provides 22% of the UK’s renewable energy, and these figures are set to rise in the coming years.
Biomass refers to any fuel that is derived from organic materials. It can take the form of wood, waste materials from crops, food waste or sewage.
How does it work?
Biomass fuel consists of living or recently living organisms. When these organisms are alive, they absorb energy from the sun through photosynthesis. This chemical energy is then released as heat when the fuel is burned. Humans have been using biomass for thousands of years when burning wood to create fires. On an industrial scale, the biomass is burned to produce steam, which then powers a turbine to create electricity.
Can it last forever?
As biomass is made from living organisms that are constantly reproducing, it is classed as renewable energy source. This is because if used effectively and efficiently, biomass fuel will never run out. This is partly what makes biomass a genuine lasting alternative to fossil fuels such as oil and gas. If we manage our crops and forestation effectively, there will always be waste residues to use as biomass fuel.
Is it good for the environment?
This issue is still up for debate, but the general consensus is that burning biomass is much less damaging to our environment than using fossil fuels which emit harmful levels of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
When the biomass is alive, it takes it’s energy from the sun, through water and through carbon dioxide in the air. When burned, the carbon released from the biomass has only been taken from the atmosphere during the lifetime of the organism. For this reason it is argued that biomass energy is carbon neutral, as the carbon being released is not new and simply being returned to the atmosphere.
On the other hand, the process of burning oil releases carbon that has been stored in the earth for thousands of years, contributing to global warming. This is why the use of biomass energy is expected to grow in the UK, as the government has set targets to reduce carbon emissions. The proportion of energy generated from renewable sources in the UK is expected to rise to 30% by 2020, with biomass playing a big part.
How widely is it used?
While the use of biomass fuel in the UK is growing, it is still accounts for a small proportion of the total energy generated. In 2010, about 5% of energy in the UK came from biomass sources.
However, in other countries biomass is much more widely used and people depend on it. In developing countries such as Kenya and Bangladesh, the proportion of energy provided from biomass is between 50 and 65%. In Ethiopia and Nepal, over 90% of their energy comes from biomass fuel.
Overall, around 10% of the world’s energy is derived from biomass. Most of this comes from developing countries – around 2.6 billion people depend on it. The biggest total producers of biomass energy are Brazil, India and the USA, who rely on biomass for between 16 to 18% of their total energy needs.
How can it save you money?
It is possible to use biomass boilers instead of traditional gas boilers to heat your homes. Not only will this help you reduce your carbon footprint, it could also save you money on your energy tariffs. Instead of burning gas, biomass boilers burn wooden pellets to create energy. As a fuel, it is cheaper than gas and so in the long run you will recuperate the money you spend on the boiler in savings. You could save up to £70 a year by replacing your gas boiler to a biomass one. If you have an electric heating system, you can save up to £880 a year by switching.