As Countries Make a Dash for Biomass Power Generation, Environmentalists Question its Sustainability

The increasing use of biomass as a fuel source is akin to going back to the basics. In ancient times, humans used materials such as grass and wood to obtain fuel but eventually moved to fossil-fuel based sources such as oil and natural gas. That circle is nearing completion again with fossil fuels now becoming sparse and extracting them becoming an expensive exercise. As a result, biomass, the organic matter that can be used to produce fuel, is again changing electricity generation dynamics worldwide.

The market for biomass power generation, meanwhile, is on an upward growth trajectory. According to Transparency Market Research, the global biomass power generation market is pegged to have a valuation of US$50.52 bn by 2022, at a compounded annual growth rate of 6.4% CAGR between 2014 and 2022. The installed capacity of biomass power generation plants worldwide is projected to rise to a whopping 122,331.6 MW by 2022, and the power generated by biomass plants worldwide is predicted to stand at 738,350.3 million KWh by 2022.

Biomass Makes the Cut as a Clean Energy Source, but Critics Warn of its Ill-effects

Considered a sustainable source of power generation by biofuel engineers, biomass also enjoys the attributes of being carbon-neutral, making it one of the most eco-friendly fuel sources available to man today. The plentiful supply of biomass has promoted its use – massive amounts of crop residues and unused wood remains from farming and human manufacturing activities.

Countries are now realizing the many benefits of biomass and putting it to good use. A case in point would be Brazil, a country that holds the reputation of being the world’s largest producer of sugarcane and eucalyptus pulp. The country is now channeling biomass left over from its industrial and agricultural processes into the biomass power plants. In other countries such as China, where rice is cultivated in abundance, rice husk is used extensively in biomass power generation.

Yet, there are a few concerns – many of them based on heavy research – that the use of biomass isn’t exactly as sustainable as it is made out to be. Here are the most important ones:

  • Biomass is often termed as being carbon-neutral, a claim that has been contested by environmentalists. According to a representative of the East Coast Environmental Law Association, an advocacy group that endeavors to strengthen environmental laws in Canada, the cutting down of a forest actually creates a carbon debt, which can only be repaid after the replacement tree reaches a certain age. This process could take years.
  • Burning wood pellets instead of coal at power plants is regarded as being more sustainable, but large power plants require a mammoth supply of wood pellets. In the United Kingdom, where power plants such as Drax at Yorkshire need an unending supply of wood pellets, imports of this commodity have risen sharply over the last few years. England alone reportedly imported 5 million tons of wood pellets in 2014. NGOs such as Biofuelwatch have said that the burning of wood pellets on a large scale is inefficient, as it raises the question about how much of it is actually waste wood.
Although biomass power generation has reduced dependence on coal, environmentalists seem to be unconvinced about whether it is curbing carbon emissions or encouraging deforestation.

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