This is a question that is often not correctly answered or the answer is often not fully complete. While crude oil was created from biological material of thousands and even millions of years, it is not what is classed as bioenergy, because it is not from a renewable source. There really is no shortage of different materials that are today used as biomass for the production of energy, but here are some examples:
- Wood production waste
- Sugar beet and cane
- Straw and grass
In some instances the source is of biomass is specifically grown for the production of bioenergy, but what has happened in recent years to ever larger degrees is that waste products from other industries are used. These industries include food production, paper mills and many others. The great thing is that waste products are taken from these industries, which would otherwise have cost them to adequately dispose of.
While energy production from biomass is still far behind non-renewable sources, the US has increased it output to over 7 GW which is a substantial base to build on. At this stage we should highlight that bioenergy production alone will never be able to fully offset fossil fuels because of the amounts of arable land required. There simply would not be enough scope to produce all the food needed and energy.
One of the main areas for improvement is still the accumulation of waste products from other industries. As this waste would ultimately just end up on land fill sites it literally is a waste from an energy point of view. One of the leaders in this area has been Brazil where sugarcane and waste from that industry has been increasingly used in the production of electricity and now becoming the world leader in this area.
The main benefit of bioenergy is that it comes from renewable sources and essentially is carbon neutral. This means that the carbon released from burring the biomass is the same as was absorbed from the atmosphere during the growth period. But there still is an environmental impact when not executed correctly. What has happened in many places is that forest areas have been cut down to make way for land used for the production of biomass.
This has a very negative effect as the forest would have absorbed far more carbon than any crop could, and there have been some pretty bad mistakes made throughout the world.
That is why we are such ardent supporters of using biomass sourced from industry and household waste rather than growing crops. It also has a negative impact on the price of food where now the food industry has to compete with large energy corporations for the same resource which has been driving prices up.
Finding the balance is going to be difficult but it will be essential to solving the energy problem of the world. We simply cannot afford to continue to be reliant on fossil fuels that are doing so much damage. Biomass is only one piece in the puzzle that will span numerous industries.