You are reading Part 2 of 7 in this series. What are Quick Facts?

Biomass energy made up 5.1% of the energy (and 45% of renewable energy) used in the United States in 2018 and 1.4% of electricity generated in the United States in 2019.

What is biomass energy and how is it used?

  • Biomass energy comes from burning or fermenting materials that were recently alive, including algae, wood, food waste, manure, and plants. Biomass can be burned directly to produce heat or electricity, but more commonly in the United States, it is processed to create liquid fuels that can be burned in planes and vehicles. Wood and waste products are often burned directly, while corn and soybeans are often converted into liquid fuels, called biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel.

  • The construction of new biomass projects stalled after 2013, when supportive policies such as tax incentives changed. But biomass still produces nearly half of the renewable energy used across the country. About half that energy comes from biofuels, with the majority of that from corn-based ethanol.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of biomass energy?

  • The cost of biomass energy production varies widely, depending on the type of biomass being sourced, its availability, and associated processing requirements.

  • When waste products from agriculture, forestry, and other activities are readily available, the price of generating biomass energy can compete with conventional gas and oil energy generation prices.

  • Burning biomass and biofuels releases harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but carbon dioxide is captured during the original growth of biomass sources. Depending on the energy demands of growing, harvesting, transporting, and processing those sources, this intake and output of carbon dioxide may balance out as “carbon neutral” — although this depends on factors like replanting to replace the harvested biomass, and emissions still affect the planet even if they are balanced out in the long term.

  • In countries or localities where burning of biomass occurs, health concerns become relevant as biomass smoke contains particulates that have been linked to cardiovascular problems and premature death.

  • Planned and continuous biomass growth can provide a consistent and reliable source of energy — since some forms of biomass can be cultivated, unlike many renewable energy sources.

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  1. IRENA explores the costs associated with different aspects and forms of energy generation from biomass in its report, Renewable Energy Technologies: Cost Analysis Series, Biomass for Power Generation. The U.S. Department of Energy reviews Bioenergy Basics, including insights from the 2016 Billion-Tons Report focused on the bioeconomy.

All Renewables:

  1. The Energy Information Administration (EIA), an independent federal agency, provides an overview of energy in the United States, explains energy sources and uses, and answers common questions about renewables and other forms of energy. It also offers a wealth of data about energy generation and consumption from different sources over time and publishes news and analysis about energy and related policy. The EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2020 with projections to 2050 outlines how energy generation and use may change in the future, based on markets and historical trends.

  2. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy’s 2020 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook includes recent information on the U.S. energy sector, such as market details, data on emerging technologies, and historical trends.

  3. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) published the 2018 Renewable Energy Fact Book, which is the most recent edition and includes summary information on the different types of renewable energy sources. The Fact Book was prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which also gives information about each of the major renewable energy sources. The EERE also describes technologies and research in different methods of renewable electricity generation, including solar, geothermal, wind, and water.

  4. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy and the Environment resource delves into the environmental effects of energy systems and provides tools to measure environmental impact.

  5. The International Energy Agency (a Paris-based autonomous intergovernmental organization) produced the report Global CO2 Emissions in 2019, which provides helpful international context about global energy trends and development. A report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019, breaks down the prices tied to different renewable energy technologies and processes on a global scale.

Creative Commons LicenseThe text and video on this page are licensed as Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0. Journalists are free to use any text or video on this page with or without attribution to SciLine.