10 Environmental Impacts of Biomass

In as much as biomass is an attractive renewable low-sulfur fuel, the potential environmental impacts of biomass are felt due to the utilization of its energy resource.

Biomass refers to the overall mass of an ecosystem. Which includes:  biomass such as plant biomass, heterotrophic biomass (organisms that eat other organisms), species biomass (the biomass for an individual species in a community), terrestrial biomass, ocean biomass, and even global biomass.

Biomass may be quantified as the total amount of mass in an ecosystem or as an average amount of mass in a given area.

Competition for arable lands required for food and fiber production is the major issue concerning biomass production. Soil disturbance, climate change, habitat destruction and loss of species, nutrient depletion, and impaired water quality are also potential environmental effects of biomass feedstock production and utilization of agricultural and forest residues for energy.

The severity of these impacts is highly site-dependent and must be assessed regionally.

Biochemical and thermochemical processes for converting biomass materials to fuel produce air pollutants (such as carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide, etc.), solid wastes, and wastewater that may adversely impact the environment.

However, the environmental impacts from biomass production and conversion can be reduced by the implementation of conservation practices and careful planning, employing appropriate environmental control technology, and utilizing any by-products produced.

What is Biomass?

Biomass is renewable organic material made from living organisms such as plants and animals. Biomass can also be defined as a renewable and sustainable source of energy used to create electricity or other forms of power. It is a form of bio-energy.  

The most common biomass materials used for energy are plants, wood, and waste. These are called biomass feedstocks.  Until the mid-1800s, biomass was the largest source of total annual energy consumption in the United States.

Biomass continues to be an important fuel in many countries, especially for cooking and heating in developing countries. Biomass contains stored chemical energy from the sun. Plants produce biomass through photosynthesis.

Biomass can be burned to create heat (direct), converted into electricity (direct), or processed into biofuel (indirect).

However, this interesting source of energy is without an impact on the environment, this led us to research so as to enlighten you on some of the adverse impacts posed by biomass on the environment.

Biomass fuel of the Future

10 Environmental Impacts of Biomass

1. Climate Change

Climate change is a major global environmental problem that has been discovered to be caused by the non-sustainable extraction of wood from forests and fossil fuel combustion, and this phenomenon has led to the realization of the need to explore efficient and alternative environmentally sound energy options.

The combustion of fuelwood and other biomass fuels leads to CO2 (greenhouse gas) emissions, as nearly 50% of wood is carbon. This greenhouse gas is a major contributor to global warming, which in turn leads to variations in the climate.

However, if the fuel wood comes from sustainable modes of extraction, its combustion will lead to zero net carbon emission. But then, it is difficult to quantify the percentage of fuel wood used from non-sustainable sources.

At a global level, about 2.8% of CO2 emission is attributed to fuel wood combustion. Furthermore, in addition to CO2 emissions, the combustion of fuel wood and agro-residues leads to the emission of products of incomplete combustion.

These products are even more powerful GHGs per gram of carbon emitted than CO2. An estimate of the global warming potential of non-CO2 GHGs, such as CO, CH4, and nonmethane hydro-carbons, could be in the range of 20–110 percent as much as that of CO2 itself, depending on the time involved.

2. Deforestation

Global fuel wood consumption is estimated to be around 1.3 x 109 m3 and is expected to rise further in the coming years. The main sources of fuel wood are forests, village trees, and forest residues. Fuel wood is largely used as a domestic fuel in developing countries. In industries (such as the steel industry), it is used as a source of heat.

Many energy companies use forest timber for fuel thereby indiscriminately clear-cutting mature trees which leads to deforestation, habitat loss, destruction of natural beauty, etc.

Different views have been purported on the contribution of fuel wood extraction to deforestation. Studies have concluded that fuel wood extraction contributes to varying degrees to the loss of trees (in villages and forests), forest degradation, and ultimately deforestation.

The imbalance between the demand and production of fuel wood is reported to be one of the primary factors responsible for forest depletion. The increasing use of fuel wood for meeting the domestic and industrial needs of both rural and urban areas has contributed to forest decline.

A Pile of tree trunks from the forest.

3. Loss of Soil Nutrients

Remains of agriculture constitute an important source of energy in rural areas of developing countries when left on fields improves the fertility of the soil. And the use of agricultural remains for energy would be an issue if it reduces the fertility of the soil.

However, it is important to note that not all residues have the same effect on the soil. Some residues such as corncobs, rice husk, jute sticks, cotton stock, and coconut shells do not decompose easily and have the potential as energy sources. The choice of agricultural residues thus has an impact on the environment.

Cattle dung, similarly, though it is a fertilizer, loses its value as fertilizer if burned or left under the sun for a few days.

Currently, crop residue from cereals is largely used as fodder, and ligneous (woody) residues are used as fuel. The burning of woody crop residue may not lead to any significant loss of nutrients in the soil.

Burning of cattle dung as fuel leads to the loss of organic matter and other nutrients affecting crop production. Thus the environmental impact of the loss of nutrient value due to the burning of crop residue and dung is marginal.

4. Effect on Human Health

Health problems can emanate as a result of exposure to smoke caused by the burning of fuel wood. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), smoke from low-quality biofuels such as farm residues and animal wastes can cause acute bronchitis and pneumonia among infants and women.

Smoke from the use of biomass fuels in rural kitchens, wood fires, and associated pollution are common phenomena in most developing countries. Cooking in a smoke-filled kitchen is inconvenient and leads to drudgery among women.

5. Air Pollution

Outside of contributing emissions of Green House Gases, which lead to global warming and, ultimately, climate change, burning biomass in a solid, liquid, or gaseous state can also emit other pollutants and particulate matter into the air, such as carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides, making the air unfit for use by living organisms. This phenomenon is known as air pollution.

In some instances, the biomass burned can emit more pollution than fossil fuels. Unlike carbon dioxide emissions, many of these pollutants cannot be sequestered by new plants.

These compounds can lead to several environmental and human respiratory health issues if not properly contained.

6. Decrease in Water Resources

Plants require water to grow. When energy companies grow trees and other crops for a bio-energy plant, they use a lot of water for irrigation.

On a large scale, this increases drought conditions, impacting aquatic habitats and the amount of water supply available for other purposes (domestic use, food crops, drinking, hydropower, etc.).

7. Soil Erosion

Soil erosion occurs when soil particles detach from the soil surface by rain or are transported by wind or flowing water.

Living vegetation or crop residues protect the soil surface from erosion, but when the soil surface is not covered by plant materials, water dislodges soil particles from aggregates, leading to soil erosion. Harvesting crops for biomass energy increases the level of erosion in the soil.

8. Desertification

Desertification on account of the clearing of forests and woodlands for agriculture and livestock. The biomass energy industry turns trees into wood pellets and then burns them for power at a utility scale.

Biomass companies falsely use this process as clean energy, but burning trees for power can emit more carbon pollution than burning coal and industries causing long-lasting damage to forests and wildlife

9. Habitat Loss

Bioenergy demand could exacerbate habitat loss for species that are losing habitat to urbanization. Forests, which serve as habitats for living organisms, can be lost to biomass. And the loss of habitat means a loss of biodiversity.

10. Loss of Biodiversity

Biomass harvesting is promoted to give value to wood that is of low value because it is not as valuable as sawn wood. However, these trees are most valuable for biodiversity.

Removing such trees significantly reduces habitat for cavity-dwelling animals such as squirrels and owls.

Removing dead and decaying wood also removes materials from the base of the food chain that support complex fungi and invertebrate communities. With the increase of biomass is the decrease in species number and functional richness.

Conclusion

Biomass is a complex, natural, renewable material with enormous chemical variability. Its potential for energy production varies on the process used, which may involve elementary or highly sophisticated technologies.

Therefore, as we opt for the use of biomass as a source of biofuel or bioenergy, let’s not forget that the environment is the first factor to consider.

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Environmental Consultant at Environment Go! | + posts

Ahamefula Ascension is a Real Estate Consultant, Data Analyst, and Content writer. He is the founder of Hope Ablaze Foundation and a Graduate of Environmental Management in one of the prestigious colleges in the country. He is obsessed with Reading, Research and Writing.

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