Biomass in new Daylight
It can hardly have escaped your notice this fall, energy prices are skyrocketing. Gas and electricity are becoming much more expensive, in some households as much as two hundred euros per month! What can you do about that now? One solution is to stop using natural gas and other fossil fuels throughout the Netherlands. An alternative to fossil fuels could be the use of biomass. You can read here how biomass works, what it is used for, whether it is really as useful as thought and whether you can save money with it.
What exactly is biomass?
First we need to form a picture of what biomass is. Biomass consists of wood and products/waste from arable farming. For example, we only eat the corn, but the rest of the corn plant is not eaten. You can also use it as biomass. Here you can read about generating electricity from biomass. Electricity can be generated from biomass by burning it.
Figure 1 Stack of woody biomass https://pixabay.com/nl/photos/wood-biomass-cases-825792/
But why would this be better than burning natural gas as we use it now? That is because burning wood would be CO2 neutral. How about that?
When oil and natural gas are burned, the gas is released CO2 (also called carbon dioxide). This is a greenhouse gas, it contributes to global warming. Check out the video on our site to see exactly how this works. To inflict less damage on the environment, it is better to emit less CO2. Unfortunately, when wood is burned, CO2 is also released. Why is wood combustion still CO2-neutral?
That’s how it is: plants on our planet have a very nice function. They absorb CO2 and turn it into O2, or oxygen. Oxygen is needed by humans for breathing and is therefore vital to us. And while plants and trees produce oxygen, they also extract CO2 from the air. Plants fix that CO2 in their leaves and stems, and trees make wood from CO2. So if we burn that wood again, the CO2 will be released into the air again. Burning wood is CO2 neutral because the released CO2 has recently been removed from the air. In total, burning wood does not add CO2 to the air.
Figure 2 Carbon cycle biomass combustion. The CO2 released during combustion is stored in trees again.
The CO2 released during the combustion of oil and natural gas was stored millions of years ago in the plants of that time. Those plants of that time have turned into oil and natural gas over millions of years. So if we now burn oil and natural gas, CO2 is released into the air that has been in the ground for millions of years. As a result, CO2 is added to the air, the total amount of CO2 increases due to the combustion of fossil fuels. That’s the greenhouse effect you’ve probably heard about. This addition of CO2 causes the earth to heat up, with all its consequences. When the CO2 is recorded, the difference is between burning fossil fuels and burning wood.
Are there also disadvantages?
But why are we still burning fossil fuels? This is because burning biomass has a number of disadvantages. Fossil fuels are often used for the transport of biomass. If the truck that transports the biomass runs on diesel, fossil fuels are still used, so that the entire process is no longer CO2 neutral. Burning wood also pollutes the air in the area due to particulate matter. So don’t just replace your CV with a wood stove! They pollute the air and save little or no money.
This is what we can do!
Shouldn’t we have anything to do with biomass at all? Of course we do! Biomass cannot only be used for electricity production. Electricity is only one form of energy and biomass is suitable for many more types of energy, such as heavy transport using biokerosene. And besides energy, biomass has many applications that are researched now such as bioplastics, building materials, chemical applications and even biodegradable coffee cups.
An important distinction that we have to make when we talk about the use of biomass is that between production and application. For example, you can have a sustainable application of biomass (see above), but the production of that biomass cannot have been sustainable. The use of biomass is only sustainable if production and application are both sustainable. We therefore have to pay close attention to where biomass comes from and how it is applied.
That is also the opinion of former Utrecht PhD student Chun Sheng Goh, who now lives in Malaysia again. He believes that there is no one size fits all solution for biomass. Because there are so many applications, not all of which have to do with energy, it is always necessary to look for the optimal application for the situation. He therefore believes that biomass should not be lumped together as solar panels and wind energy. They only deal with energy, biomass goes further.
How do we proceed?
Biomass is therefore a lot more versatile than many people think. But is it also the solution to the energy problem? Perhaps not, mainly because of air pollution and transport. Other applications of biomass, on the other hand, could offer attractive sustainable solutions in the future. Sticking to fossil fuels is also not the solution, of course. For more information about other alternative energy sources, read the other articles on our site.
Regardless of the energy source, use your energy economically and be well informed! For example, by checking the articles and podcast below.
– Article Energy from sweat
– Article Solar panels
– Article Biofuel
– Article Nuclear energy
Johnston, C. M., & Cornelis Van Kooten, G. (2015). Back to the past: Burning wood to save the globe. Ecological Economics, 120, 185–193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.10.008
SER. (2020, juli). Biomassa in balans. Sociaal-Economische Raad. https://www.ser.nl/-/media/ser/downloads/adviezen/2020/biomassa-in-balans.pdf
Vural Gursel, I., Moretti, C., Hamelin, L., Jakobsen, L. G., Steingrimsdottir, M. M., Junginger, M., Høibye, L., & Shen, L. (2021). Comparative cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment of bio-based and petrochemical PET bottles. Science of The Total Environment, 793, 148642. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.148642
Podcast from Studio Energie Afl. 49: Martin Junginger (Universiteit Utrecht) over feiten en fabels in het biomassa-debat geluisterd upon reccomendation of Martin Junginger.
Image 1 is free for commercial use. Link: https://pixabay.com/nl/photos/hout-biomassa-koffers-825792/
Image 2 is selfmade.
Interview with Chun Sheng Goh is textual via email. His answers have been translated and adapted to the current text. I also spoke with Alexander van der Vooren, his statements are not worded literally in the article. I used this interview to broaden my view of the situation. I was allowed to put his name at the bottom of the article.