Written by Joanna Hunter Published on 6 July 2023 ✔ Biomass energy converts organic material, such as plants, wood and waste, into energy ✔ It’s versatile, readily available and carbon neutral ✔ However, it can still have a negative impact on the environment Biomass energy is our oldest source of energy. Ever since humans first discovered fire, we have been using it to cook food, create warmth and bring light.Created from organic material, primarily plants, wood and waste, biomass can either be harvested directly, or as a byproduct of activities such as farming, sewage and household waste.It’s hard to know exactly how much biomass energy is being used around the world, but the global biomass electricity market was believed to be worth a whopping £32.6 billion in 2022 (Business Wire, 2023).Biomass can be burned directly, for example as firewood, or it can be converted into fuels, such as bioethanol and ethanol, which are used in a similar way to petrol, and biogas, which is made up of methane and carbon dioxide.In this guide, we’ll explore the pros and cons of using biomass energy. What's on this page? 01 The pros and cons of biomass energy 02 The 5 advantages of biomass energy 03 The 5 disadvantages of biomass energy 04 FAQs The pros and cons of biomass energyIf you’ve already done your research, you’ll have seen that biomass energy can be a bit of a hot topic – while some people see it as a good alternative to fossil fuels, others point out that it still generates carbon dioxide (CO2).Check out the table below to get a better overview of the advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy. Pros It’s renewable and easily accessible It helps us become less reliant on fossil fuels It’s cheaper than fossil fuels It reuses waste and reduces landfill It’s carbon neutral (according to some) Cons It may not be as green as it sounds It’s not as efficient as fossil fuels It can cause deforestation It can impact on food production It can be expensive to make The 5 advantages of biomass energyThere are plenty of reasons why it makes sense to use biomass energy to support all areas of energy requirements.1. It’s renewable and easily accessibleWhile fossil fuels are finite, the breadth of core organic materials used in biomass is so great that there is little danger we are going to run out of it: some crops are grown specially, but it’s also frequently a lucrative byproduct of industries such as farming, and even the waste we create.It’s also pretty accessible (especially in the case of firewood), free of charge, doesn’t require processing, and avoids dependence on external providers or imports.2. It helps us become less reliant on fossil fuelsBiomass is a very flexible source of energy – it can be burned directly, or converted into fuels and electricity.It can be used in similar ways to fossil fuels, such as diesel and petroleum, and it can also be co-fired with a fossil fuel, and is often used alongside coal in coal plants.This means that it’s a strong candidate for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.3. It’s cheaper than fossil fuelsFossil fuels rely on expensive and often very complicated methods to extract and transport gas and oil from the ground.Creating biomass energy, by contrast, is cheaper, even if grown as a crop. And, because much of it can be created from waste products such as farming waste and landfill, it can be a lucrative side product.The improved technology also helps to make the production of biomass energy more efficient.4. It reuses waste and reduces landfillWaste-to-energy plants enable biomass to be converted into energy. Estimates of how much landfill might be reduced vary, but some believe it could be up to 90%.Not only does burning landfill generate energy, but it reduces the amount of methane and carbon dioxide that can be generated by leaving waste to rot.There are financial savings too – with burning waste reducing the cost of finding suitable land, as well as transporting and disposing of the waste.5. It’s carbon neutral (according to some)Biomass energy’s carbon neutral status is the matter of some debate. Those who believe that biomass energy is carbon neutral generally base their arguments on a process known as carbon balancing.There are two forms of biomass: primary, and secondary. Primary comes from plants, and secondary comes from processing those plants. And, thanks to photosynthesis, plants are constantly converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.The argument for carbon balancing is that the biomass burned can only create the same amount of carbon dioxide that’s been absorbed by the plants during their lifetime, and so when they are burned, no new carbon dioxide has been created.Find out more about this on our page: Biomass Boilers: An Alternative to Gas Boilers?But biomass may not be as green as it sounds (see below). The 5 disadvantages of biomass energyUnfortunately, the use of biomass energy isn’t always straightforward, and can have unexpected implications, particularly in terms of the environment and food production.1. It may not be as green as it soundsBurning biomass energy can cause numerous environmental issues. Burning wood, for example, creates pollutants that are comparable to coal, and indoor air pollution from burning it indoors can be particularly dangerous.Similar to fossil fuels, biomass releases carbon dioxide when burned. Additionally, burning waste can lead to a significant rise in methane, which is believed to have 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.2. It’s not as efficient as fossil fuelsCompared to fossil fuels, biofuels like Ethanol are considerably less efficient, and often need to be mixed with fossil fuels such as petrol, diesel or coal to increase effectiveness.The lack of efficiency limits biomass energy being used at scale.3. It can cause deforestationOne of the lead materials in biomass energy is wood, in part because of how easily available it is to people. However, while wood is a renewable resource, there are places where supply outstrips demand, either due to community needs, the use of biomass power plants, or because land use changes to grow biofuel crops such as palm oil.Indonesia, for example, can claim both to be the third largest producer of biofuels in the world, and also in the top three countries for deforestation – largely linked to palm oil plantations.While this can be partly mitigated by replanting trees, the removal of trees takes a heavy toll on the quality of the land, as well as destroying ecosystems that have supported valuable biodiversity.Removing trees also has an impact on CO2: it can take 10-40 years for a new tree to match the absorption power of a mature one.4. It can impact on food productionSome people argue that it is morally wrong to grow biofuel crops in areas that could be used for growing food or sustaining wildlife. There is a concern that the large areas of land required to grow crops to facilitate biomass energy at scale could impact on food prices and availability.Monocultures can also decrease biodiversity and have an adverse impact on the quality of the ongoing nutrients in the soil.5. It can be expensive to makeWhile generally cheaper, easier and safer to access and develop than fossil fuels, the process of growing biomass energy as a crop requires the cultivation of large areas of land, which can be both time consuming and expensive.In the USA, the world's largest producer of biofuel, this amounts to 60 million acres of farmland, or close to 25% of all planted land.SummaryBiomass energy is a renewable and easily accessible source of energy based on organic materials that has been used for centuries. Relatively cheap and carbon neutral, it can be a useful way both to make use of waste and transition away from our dependency on fossil fuels.However, biomass energy doesn’t come without drawbacks, including carbon dioxide and methane emissions. It has a potentially negative impact on land management and environmental health, causing both deforestation and a loss of biodiversity. It is also currently more expensive than other renewables, such as wind and solar. FAQs What are 5 advantages of biomass? The five main advantages of biomass are that it’s renewable and carbon neutral, allows us to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and is generally a cheaper source of energy than fossil fuels. Additionally, burning waste can help reduce landfill. What is a disadvantage of using biomass energy? All biomass energy releases carbon dioxide when it is burned, and some forms, such as those derived from waste, can release a significant amount of methane. Burning wood, a popular source of biomass energy, can lead to significant pollution. What is the advantage of biomass? It’s cheap – sometimes free – and usually readily available. In many cases it can be used without further treatment, or the intervention of a third-party supplier. It may be less polluting than fossil fuels. Written by: Joanna Hunter Jo joined The Eco Experts this year, covering topics including biomass energy and solar panels. A former journalist at The Times, she has also contributed to The Observer, The Guardian, Time Out and The Telegraph.