“Sustainability” is a major buzzword in the energy sector. In the face of climate change, national governments and global organizations like the United Nations continue to encourage the use of sustainable energy sources. In this blog, we’ll examine what makes biomass sustainable, specifically plant-derived biomass like wood pellets.
Sustainable Resources: Wood Versus Fossil Fuels
A sustainable energy resource can be defined as a substance or method that supplies energy without itself being used up or destroyed. In other words, sustainable resources can be renewed or replaced in a reasonable timeframe. Some energy resources clearly don’t qualify as sustainable. Fossil fuels are the prime example. Coal, natural gas, and oil take hundreds of millions of years to form. Animal and plant matter must be subjected to intense pressure before they become these important energy sources. Clearly, humans cannot mimic this natural process and quickly replenish our supply of fossil fuels. On the other hand, some energy resources are very sustainable. For example, solar energy constantly beams down on earth, supplying energy that can be captured and converted into electricity. No matter how much solar energy we use, the amount available to us remains roughly the same. What about the sustainability of biomass? Biomass consists of plant materials that can be burned to create heat or other forms of energy. Unlike the plants that became fossil fuels, the plants that are turned into biomass can be replaced with new plants. The new plants will grow in a much shorter time than it takes to make fossil fuels, making biomass a more sustainable form of energy.
Further Evidence for the Sustainability of Biomass
Of course, the fact that trees grow faster than fossil fuels form is not the only reason biomass qualifies as a sustainable resource. Consider the three reasons listed below as well.
1. Biomass Is Not Considered a Stand-Alone Solution to Energy Problems
Some critics of the biomass industry point out that it is not as sustainable as other energy sources. For example, it takes longer to grow a tree than to capture wind or solar energy. The critics use that argument as a reason to discourage the use of biomass altogether. However, that argument would only truly matter if biomass became the primary energy source for the entire world. Proponents of biomass are not proposing that as a solution to the climate-change-related energy problems. Instead, they put forth biomass as part of the solution and encourage the use of other sustainable energy forms as well. Some biomass supporters even propose using existing equipment to burn wood pellets instead of coal. In cases where this is an option, biomass becomes a practical way to produce energy. Much-needed energy can be made available, but no significant financial investment in other sustainable energy sources is required upfront.
2. Biomass Wood Pellets Come Mainly From Otherwise Unusable Tree Parts
Many biomass critics also have a false image that the production of wood pellets is only possible after forests are cut down, with those trees being turned entirely into biomass. That is a misconception. In truth, wood pellets are frequently made from the “spare” parts of trees that are unsuitable for other uses, such as timber. These parts include skinny branches, limbs, and tree tops. The creation of biomass wood pellets should more appropriately be seen as a way to avoid waste. Compare wood pellets to other ingenious uses of spare parts. For example, after harvesting their crops, potato farmers separate the more aesthetically shaped spuds from large and lumpy ones. The nice-looking potatoes get bagged or boxed and sold whole to consumers, but the ugly potatoes still get used. Frequently, they become dehydrated potato flakes or pearls that have a similar nutrition value to the whole potatoes.
3. The Growing Market for Wood Pellets Encourages the Use of Land to Grow Trees
Biomass also has a supporter in US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. According to an article on the Daily Caller, Vilsack wrote a letter that praised biomass because it “improves our forested area” and “improves US forest management practices.” In short, biomass energy sources like wood pellets actually lead forest managers to use tree-covered lands more wisely. Biomass does not automatically lead to drastically diminished forests. Similarly, Vilsack also noted that biomass creates “new economic opportunities for low-value wood.” Vilsack conjectured that these economic opportunities will ensure that forested lands continue to be used for forests.
The owners or managers of these lands will avoid selling them to developers for a large, one-time pay-off that ultimately leaves the land devoid of green life. Instead, they’ll continue to see forestation as a viable way to turn a profit. By that logic, biomass actually preserves forests and contributes to its own sustainability.
When used as part of the global shift towards sustainability, biomass is a viable and reliable source of energy. Explore our other blog posts to uncover more reasons biomass is a growing industry.