Biomass Energy: What is it and Why do we need it?


Introduction to Bioenergy

Biomass can be characterized as solar energy stored in the chemical compounds of organic molecules through the process of photosynthesis. Biomass is a multipurpose material that has been in use for a long time in the supply of food, feed, energy and other resources. At the present, biomass supplies near 11% of the world’s energy demand, predominantly as traditional fuel for cooking and heating. In industrialized countries the biomass contribution to overall energy supply is in the range of 2-4%.

Commercial biomass-to-energy (bioenergy) systems have been widely explored in the last 20 years. Our knowledge of organic material that can be used as a renewable energy source has expanded: agriculture and forestry residue, agro-industrial by-products, municipal solid and liquid waste as well as dedicated agricultural and forestry cultivation. Mature technologies are available for converting biomass into thermal and electrical energy, or into either liquid or gaseous fuels.

  Solid Biomass

Entails the solid, non-fossil material of biological origin used for biomass production:

-          Purpose grown wood from agriculture, forestry or conventional crops (sugar, oil, starch.)

-          Wood waste from forestry or wood procession activities.

-          Solid biological and biodegradable waste, straw, rice, nut shells, poultry liter…

  Liquid Biofuels


-          Bioethanol

-          Biodiesel

-          Biomethanol

-          Biodimethylether

-          Bio oil



A gas composed principally of methane and carbon dioxide produced by anaerobic digestion of biomass:

-          Landfill gas, sewage sludge gas and other biogases.

-          Anaerobic fermentation of animal slurries and waste from abattoirs, breweries and other agro-food industries.



Hydrogen produced from biomass for use as energy carrier:

-          Gasification or pyrolysis of solid biomass.

-          Reforming of biogas.

-          New technology based on the use of photosynthesis algae or bacteria, or even on fermentative bacteria.


The use of bioenergy can find its true benefits in relation to global climate, air quality, land and ecosystem protection, human health, as well as providing energy security through diverse and local production routes. Modern technological solutions for converting biomass into energy increase these benefits, and increase the competitiveness in regards to more conventional energy sources. Furthermore, biomass can be used for the production of high value chemicals. This may be achieved in combination with energy products coming from bio-refineries. Although not specifically addressed in this whitepaper, the production of biochemical material could provide important synergy with bioenergy development and deployment. Bioenergy could also very well come to the aid of sustainable development in emerging industrial countries, as well as contributing towards the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.  

The Use of Bioenergy

The challenges above translate into a number of interlinked drivers that ought to push towards an increased development and deployment of bioenergy systems. The relative importance of these drivers can vary depending on the routes and regions they apply to.

Climate Change Mitigation:

The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from stationary and transport sectors is a key driver for bioenergy use, principally in Europe. Bioenergy use reduces emissions when displacing fossil fuels, as the carbon dioxide produced during combustion of biomass is out-balanced by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants during their growth. As a result, biomass use involves no net increase in atmospheric carbon, except the carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are used in biomass harvesting, transportation and conversion – which can vary from low to high. In the case of increased forest harvesting carbon dioxide emissions can become negative since more carbon dioxide is being taken and converted into biomass than was previously emitted by the slower-growing predecessor product.

Atmospheric Pollution:

Burning biomass or using liquid biofuels in engines may result in a lower emission of regulated air pollutants compared to the use of fossil fuels. For example, solid biomass and liquid biofuels result in minimal emissions of sulphur dioxide (SOx) and the use of bio-components as liquid fuel oxygenates the process and can reduce the emission of carbon monoxide (CO – an ozone precursor,) and control pollutants contributing to photochemical smog. Biofuels also have lower emissions of heavy metals, as well as carcinogenic substances such as benzene molecules. Furthermore, bio-compensation can be used to replaced lead in gasoline.

Energy Security:

As discussed earlier, bioenergy systems involve a wide range of feedstock, conversion plants at varying scales, and may contribute to energy supply in several different sectors. This diversity can contribute greatly to energy security and can allow indigenous production by reducing dependence on imported fuels, especially in the transport sector. This driver is particularly strong in the US, adding its support to ethanol production from corn.

Rural Development:

Biomass energy systems can contribute to maintaining employment and creating new jobs in rural areas, avoiding land abandonment and population over-urbanization. New crop types, new harvesting technologies, and the ability to use agricultural and forestry residues all provide potential diversification for existing farmers and landowners. For example, excess crop harvest have driven and increased ethanol programs in certain regions of China. Local production of non-traditional energy, such as transport fuels and small-scale heat and power generation could contribute to rural development, especially in developing countries. Conversion plants and the development and deployment of new end-use technologies are also a potential source of employment.

Soil Protection and Land Reclamation:

The growth of biomass feedstock can help restore degraded landscape and reclaim land through the use of energy crops for bioremediation. Short-rotation wood crops can also be used for recovering abandoned lands and maintaining their functionality. Cultivating selected plants species must be planned and managed to minimize negative unintended consequences.

Waste Treatment:

Hundreds of millions of tons of residue and waste are created every year. Even after considering other uses to some of this waste, such as animal feed, traditional energy uses and other industrial uses, there are still significant resources which can be utilized and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Straw, rice, husk, sawdust, bark, animal waste, black liquor (waste product from the kraft process when digesting pulpwood into paper pulp,) pruning residue, municipal solid waste and other sorts, could all be used as a source of energy. For example, the recovery of energy from the biodegradable fraction of municipal waste could be a valuable means for the EU in reducing the volume of waste sent to landfills (as suggested by the Landfill Directive.) Increasing strict waste legislation in many industrialized countries and increasing urbanization in developing countries will eventually lead to waste treatment and management becoming a stronger driver for bioenergy production.

Employment, Migration Mitigation and Social Cohesion:

Bioenergy can create jobs in many different economic sectors. However, the greatest value of bioenergy schemes with regards to employment remains the fact that jobs are generated where there is need for them, especially in rural areas where job maintenance, job creation and economic growth are issues of particular concern. Farming, forestry, biomass distribution and energy services activities involved in the bioenergy supply chains generate both direct and indirect jobs. Various studies have mentioned the important employment potential associated with bioenergy, citing figures in the range of 100,000 to 800,000 persons/year/EJ of biomass (EJ = Exajoule.) Many rural and forestry areas all over the world suffer from migration of rural population to more industrialized regions. This often leads to land and socio-economic degradation in the abandoned areas. Biomass can contribute in many ways to the economic development and environmental preservation of rural areas, and reduce the migration from these pares. It can also produce food, feed, and energy, and recyclable backland by-products (such as compost,) that can all be used to sustain local populations. Lastly, bioenergy can favor social cohesion as its successful implementation generally involves a wide range of stakeholders (from landowners to agricultural and forestry businesses, energy companies, financial institutions, local government and local population) within well-defined geographical areas.


This white paper was compiled by SAGA Commodities.              
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