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Weighing the benefits of biomass

When it comes to renewable energy sources, you’ve likely heard of solar and wind, but have you heard of biomass? If not, you’re not alone. Though it’s been around since the start of humankind, biomass energy use is not as common as it once was.  

Biomass energy is energy converted into a usable form from organic matter. That can include crops grown specifically for the purpose, as well as crop and forest residue. Up until the 1870s, biomass was the largest energy source in the United States. Think of burning wood for heat or to power a train.  

One of the major advantages of biomass energy is its versatility. It can be used to generate electricity, provide heat for industrial processes and even produce transportation fuels. It’s also widely available, making it a reliable and consistent energy source. 

Biomass is considered carbon-neutral since the carbon dioxide emitted when it burns is equivalent to the amount it absorbed during growth. Using biomass materials for energy production keeps them out of landfills and from open burning, minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.  

Biomass can also be sourced locally, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and supporting local economies. You’ve probably seen and maybe even used a common biomass energy product at the gas pump. Ethanol is a biofuel that, when combined with gasoline, reduces harmful emissions like carbon monoxide.  

As with any energy source, there are pros and cons. It takes a significant amount of land to grow crops for energy, so biomass could potentially compete with land needed for food production or other uses. Its endurance and sustainability are also questionable; poor sourcing and management for biomass could lead to deforestation, soil quality concerns and habitat destruction.  

Of course, the benefits and drawbacks of any type of energy must be weighed, with the central goal of creating a diverse mix of different sources. Doing so will create a more resilient grid as we transition toward a cleaner energy future.  
Grant Barton is a Communications Partner with a passion for sustainability and eco-friendly city planning. He has a diverse background in engineering, politics and international communications and hopes to apply this experience when writing and breaking down complex topics related to Alliant Energy's Clean Energy Future plans.

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