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How biomass energy works

Biomass energy might sound complicated, but it’s actually as simple as you can get. Here’s how you can use this cheap, plentiful source of energy to warm up your home.

Biomass energy might sound complicated, but it’s actually as simple as you can get. Here’s how you can use this cheap, plentiful source of energy to warm up your home.

Sofia Hutson
Energy expert
minute read
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Posted 8 JANUARY 2021

What is biomass energy?

Biomass energy is basically a fancy way of describing things like wood, animal dung, charcoal and sugarcane. In other words, any naturally occurring material that can be used to create electricity.

Biomass is a catch-all term that describes living things (or at least, things that were living once). It can mean either a plant or animal product. As these are organic materials, they contain energy they’ve absorbed from the sun.

Biomass energy clearly isn’t a new technology – we’ve been using it since we were rubbing sticks together in caves. But it’s been making a comeback in recent years, as we look to find sources of renewable energy.

How does biomass energy work?

Biomass contains stored chemical energy from the sun, and can be burned at power plants or in domestic biomass boilers and wood stoves to produce heat and electricity. It also encompasses biofuels, like diesel.

How does biomass create electricity?

Burning large amounts of biomass heats water, which creates steam. This steam then spins turbines, which run generators to produce electricity.

What are the benefits of biomass energy?

Here are some of the reasons we should consider using biomass energy:

  • Biomass energy is a renewable energy source, so long as there is a sustainably managed supply.
  • Because there’s so much of it around, biomass energy is cheap. That means it can be used all over the world.
  • If we use waste products as energy, it means there's less rubbish going to landfill.
  • You can use biomass energy at home, if you have a biomass boiler or a wood-burning stove.
  • Burning biomass releases fewer nasty chemicals than burning coal.

What are the disadvantages of biomass energy?

Unfortunately, biomass energy isn’t without its downsides. Here are some of them:

  • Burning wood and other organic products still releases CO2, which contributes to climate change.
  • The fumes from wood-burning stoves can be bad news for your health.
  • Burning biomass also releases poisonous carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.
  • Chopping down trees is bad for the environment, even when you’re using the wood to create energy.
  • Growing trees and other crops requires lots of land, which could be used for other purposes, such as growing food or building houses.
  • Growing trees – or anything else – on an industrial scale is bad for biodiversity, and could threaten wildlife.

What are biofuels?

As you’ve probably guessed by now, biofuels are fuels made from biomass. Biofuels can be made from things like vegetable oil, sugar or corn, and come in the form of either a solid, liquid or gas.

The two most common kinds of biofuel are biodiesel and bioethanol. Using biofuels to power cars and buses is not only cheaper, it also gives off less CO2 than other fuels. That means fewer emissions.

Why is biomass energy bad for the environment?

Biomass energy is considered to be carbon neutral. This is because the CO2 the trees absorb as they grow offsets the CO2 the biomass releases when you burn it.

But the maths doesn’t quite work when you’re cutting down trees to make energy. Even if you replace every tree you chop down with a new one, it’ll take a long time for those saplings to absorb all the carbon you’ve already burned.

Is biomass energy a form of renewable energy?

Biomass energy is considered renewable because it’s pretty easy to grow more trees. But burning those trees creates CO2 in the atmosphere, which means it’s not as environmentally friendly as you might hope. There’s always a trade-off, so you have to carefully weigh up the positives and the negatives.

How can biomass energy help me?

If you’re a homeowner or landlord, you can apply to the government for a Green Homes Grant voucher. You can then put this towards the cost of making your home more energy efficient. If you’re on a low income, the government may even cover the whole cost of your improvements.

One way you can qualify for the voucher is to install a biomass boiler in your house. A biomass boiler works in much the same way as your gas boiler, except it burns natural materials – usually woodchips or logs – to heat up your home.

How do I find a renewable energy provider?  

When you complete a quote through Compare the Market, we’ll include green energy tariffs alongside standard ones. You can read up on each supplier to see how environmentally sound they are. Some suppliers can even offer 100% renewable energy.

Don’t forget to read the T&Cs before you commit, so you can be sure you’re getting the right green energy for your needs.

How can I be greener? 

There are a few ways you can do your bit to be more environmentally friendly

  • Monitor your energy use 
  • Use a smart meter 
    This will tell you how much energy you’re using in real time, helping you cut down. 
  • Switch energy suppliers  
    Use an energy provider that’s committed to renewables. 
  • Unplug electric devices when you’re not using them