How does the world get from one powered by fossil fuels to one that runs entirely on energy from the wind, sun, earth’s heat, and water’s movement? Part of the answer is biomass energy generation. It is a “bridge” solution from status quo to desired state—imperfect, riddled with caveats, and probably necessary. Necessary because biomass energy can produce electricity on demand, helping the grid meet predictable changes in load and complementing variable sources of power, like wind and solar. Biomass can aid the shift away from fossil fuels and buy time for flexible grid solutions to come online, while utilizing wastes that might otherwise become environmental problems. In the near-term, substituting biomass for fossil fuels can prevent carbon stocks in the atmosphere from rising.

Photosynthesis is an energy conversion and storage process; solar energy is captured and stored as carbohydrates in biomass. Under the right conditions and over millions of years, biomass left intact would become coal, oil, or natural gas—the carbon-dense fossil fuels that, at present, dominate electricity production and transportation. Or, it can be harvested to produce heat, create steam for electricity production, or be processed into oil or gas. Rather than releasing fossil-fuel carbon that has been stored for eons far below ground, biomass energy generation trades in carbon that is already in circulation, cycling from atmosphere to plants and back again. Grow plants and sequester carbon. Process and burn biomass. Emit Carbon. Repeat. It is a continuous, neutral exchange, so long as use and replenishment remain in balance. Energy efficiency and cogeneration are integral to ensure that, in any given year, carbon from biomass combustion is equal to or less than the carbon uptake of replanted vegetation. When this balance is achieved, the atmosphere sees net zero new emissions.


Another important feedstock is waste from wood and agricultural processing. Scraps from saw mill and paper mills are valuable biomass. So are discarded stalks, husks, leaves, and cobs from crops grown for food or animal food. While it is important to leave crop residues on fields to promote soil health, a portion of those agricultural wastes can be diverted for biomass energy production. Many such organic residues would either decompose on-site or get burned in slash piles, thus releasing their stored carbon regardless (albeit perhaps over longer periods of time). When organic matter decomposes, it often releases methane and when it is burned in piles, it release black carbon (soot). Both methane and soot increase global warming faster than carbon dioxide; simply preventing them from being emitted can yield a significant benefit, beyond putting the embodied energy of biomass to productive use.


Biomass is controversial. To some, biomass is a friend; to others, a foe. A considerable academic effort is under way to more accurately access its environmental and social impacts.


… It is crucial to manage, through regulation, the drawbacks of biomass energy.


… Most important to bear in mind is that biomass—carefully regulated and managed—is a bridge to reach a clean energy future, not the destination itself.

IMPACT: Biomass is a “bridge” solution, phased out over time in favor of cleaner energy sources. The analysis assumes all biomass is derived from perennial bioenergy feedstock—not forests, annuals, or waste—and replaces coal and natural gas in electricity production. By 2050, biomass energy could reduce 7.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. As clean wind and solar power become more available in a flexible grid, the need for biomass energy will decline.

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