Biomass – Renewable Energy by burning our forests?

Talking about Biomass, the probably oldest energy source on earth after the sun, one can distinguish between five different types of Biomass, e.g. (i) wood- chips, logs, bark and sawdust, (ii) agricultural products, (iii) solid waste, (iv) landfill- and biogas and (v) alcohol fuels[1]

According to our already posted blog, Renewable Energy – just a drop in the bucket Biomass contributed approx. 9% of the worlds energy demand of the FY2017. In comparison to all the remaining renewable energies together adding up to only 4% this number does seem incredible. Besides, it may appear disturbing that burning wood and waste, etc. are considered as renewable when combustion comes along with the stigma of being environmentally unfriendly. Hence, the obvious question popped to our mind – What is the difference of burning coal or oil to wood or waste?

Biomass burning

Although you will find some differing explanations to the question above, nearly all come down to the time scale. It is argued that fossil fuels, although the same chemical composition, had absorbed CO2 many million years ago. In contrast, Biomass, when managed sustainably, is harvested as part of a constantly replenished crop[2], which means that for every cut tree, a new one has to be planted.  As a result, the CO2 balance of Biomass should be zero, whereas fossil fuels emit additional CO2 to the atmosphere. 

So far so good, but who takes care of the reforestation and top-notch filter technologies for waste burning plants, etc. to ensure Biomass is managed sustainably? For the UK, i.e. this is achieved by the Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROC). All Biomass plants >50kWp have to provide an Annual Sustainability Report to OFGEM. However, for plants <1MWp receiving the ROCs does not depend on meeting the criteria[3]

Biomass power plant

In terms of capacity, Biomass plants can reach up to 740 MWp as seen with Ironbridge power plant in the UK, namely the biggest Wood-Biomass plant in the world. Ironbridge has been transformed from being a coal-fired power station with an installed capacity of 1000 MWp to use wood only. Although Ironbridge B Power Station was decommissioned in 2017 and the 27-month demolition process began in December 2019, Ironbridge A Power Station is still up and running[4]

However, we would like to draw your attention to the newly released YouTube movie of Michael Moore, aired in honour of the 50th World Earth Day, strongly focusing on Biomass.

Hereby, we want to explicitly focus on the Biomass part of the documentary as we will discuss Solar and Wind in separate blogs in greater detail. Michael Moore raises sharp criticism against biomass operators not acting in a sustainable way, thus not fulfilling any criteria to produce green energy but harming the environment severely. 

Has this film changed your opinion on Biomass?


[1] https://www.need.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/BiomassAtAGlance_11x17.pdf

[2] https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/tools-and-resources/biomass-energy-resources/general-biomass-information/what-is-biomass/

[3] https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/environmental-programmes/ro/applicants/biomass-sustainability

[4] https://harworthgroup.com/projects/ironbridge/

4 Comments

Leave a Reply