Although described as “renewable,” because organic materials can grow back or be replenished, biomass electricity generation has far more in common with fossil fuels like coal than with non-combustion-based renewable technologies such as wind or solar.

Biomass can refer to any organic material, including crop residues; animal waste; and wood, including construction waste, furniture factory debris, and old creosote-treated railroad ties. Biomass from trees is referred to as woody biomass.

Biomass is highly polluting

Biomass plants emit large amounts of harmful pollutants including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, heavy metals, and toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde and dioxins.

Promotes environmental injustice

But the polluting begins even before the wood is burned.

In the United States, the pellet industry that supplies biomass to Europe often locates its loud and highly polluting plants in lower income and majority Black neighborhoods, adding to a long history of environmental racism and injustice.

Biomass promotes deforestation

The wood pellet industry that supplies biomass plants in Europe is causing the Southeastern United States to experience the greatest loss of forest canopy on earth.

In Canada, old growth forests are being logged to supply biomass plants in Europe and Asia. In parts of Europe, the demand for wood to make pellets for biomass is leading to growing deforestation, especially in parts of Scandinavia and the Baltic region.

Felled logs lie in a clearing that appears to have been clear cut. Trees are visible in the distance.
The growing biomass industry is leading to increased logging throughout the world, including in the Baltic region.

Contributes to global warming

Wood is an inefficient fuel. Burning it emits more CO2 per unit of energy produced than burning coal.

Supporters of biomass energy claim that the CO2 emitted from burning wood doesn’t count in the same way as CO2 emitted by burning coal, because trees are already a part of the “carbon cycle,” unlike coal that is taken from deep underground.

In reality, CO2 emitted from burning biomass increases CO2 levels in the atmosphere at a time when we need to be reducing emissions.

As Dr. William Moomaw, who was the lead author of five reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has pointed out, biomass energy moves carbon that was stored in trees into the atmosphere, where it traps heat and makes global warming worse.

Environment, biomass and climate references