When looking at the impact of biomass on the environment, it is often described as being a process that is “potentially carbon neutral.” This means with sustainable growing practices in place, the organic matter grown for biomass can offset the carbon release that occurs when it is burned to generate electricity.
The biomass environmental impact without sustainable growing methods in place are very different.
1. Harvesting biomass materials can change habitats.
In the US, biomass energy qualifies for clean energy credits. This has led to an over-exploitation of forests for biomass materials. As a consequence, there is less carbon sequestration available while the biomass combustion adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
2. It requires a lot of water to generate energy.
Large-scale biomass operations often require 1 million gallons of water or more every day in order for energy to be generated. This water is heated and then returned to the source where it was collected, altering the temperature of the natural habitat and any marine life that may be there.
3. Water quality can be affected by biomass.
The process of harvesting biomass can affect local water quality levels. Logging, for example, can tear up the soil, promote erosion, and alter groundwater tables. This is despite the fact that burning wood will waste more than three-quarters of its overall energy potential.
4. Biomass burns more than just waste.
Laws have been passed in the US requiring the production of specific amounts of electricity through the use of biomass. Some areas are unable to meet these legal requirements through biomass waste alone. This has forced them to look at logging, clear-cutting, and even growing crops for biomass on farm lands previously designated for food just to meet the legal requirements.
5. Emissions from biomass are significant.
In measurements taken only from Massachusetts-based biomass facilities, 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted annually. This comes from just three biomass facilities. Despite these emissions levels, the amount of energy in Massachusetts increased by just 1.2%.
Biomass has the potential to be a truly renewable resource for energy, but our current technologies, growing standards, and harvesting requirements are not there yet. This means the biomass environmental impact has more negatives than positives to consider at this very moment.