Have you ever thought about all of the scraps of wood that are produced as a byproduct of the lumber industry? Once harvested wood is cut and milled, there’s a lot of bark, sawdust and other forms of wood left behind. In the past, much of that wood was simply wasted, but today – with the rise of biomass as a form of renewable energy – it’s helping to power our world in a way that’s far better for the environment and our health than the burning of fossil fuels.
Sustainable biomass is a critical component of a clean energy future. There’s a wide range of biomass resources, ranging from wood waste sourced from the logging and paper industries to crops like switchgrass and even chicken litter. In addition to industry waste wood, which still makes up the majority of biomass burned for power in the United States, energy can be produced from the combustion of forest wood and woody residue.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, thinning out small-diameter and dead trees from overcrowded forests and harvesting the byproducts of forest management (limbs, needles, leaves, etc.) not only improves the health of the trees left behind in the forest, it’s also a valuable opportunity to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and our greenhouse gas emissions.
Biomass is considered renewable because the carbon stored within trees and released back into the atmosphere remains the same, whether the trees are burned or left to decompose in the natural cycle. If new trees are planted as quickly as the harvested ones are burned, the carbon cycle is balanced. The key to keeping this process sustainable is planting trees for biomass on otherwise unproductive land, or only using byproducts of forest management, rather than cutting down forests specifically for biomass.
Biomass is converted to power in a variety of ways, including direct combustion, in which it is burned to create steam and turn turbines, and co-firing, a process in which it is mixed with coal. Learn more about the technicalities of how biomass works at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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