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Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science

Bioenergy basics

Bioenergy is the creation of energy—electricity, heat, and fuel—from plant or animal materials. Bioenergy is a renewable alternative to fossil fuels because biomass can come from sources that are produced and replaced more quickly than fossil fuels, such as agricultural and forest residues, pulp and paper mill wastes, urban wood waste, energy crops, landfill methane, and animal waste.
Bioenergy from wood sources is often described as “carbon neutral” because the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted when wood-based products are used for bioenergy can be reabsorbed by new tree growth in a relatively short period of time. The overall net input of CO2 into the atmosphere is near zero as long as forest growth is sustained after harvest.

[image:] A diagram describing how the carbon released by burning wood for energy can be removed from the atmosphere and sequestered by allowing tree re-growth.

Wood and wood-derived fuels supplied 2% (1.9 quadrillion BTUs) of US energy use in 20091. Continually increasing demand for energy, as well as concern about climate change, have sparked interest in increasing the production of bioenergy from wood. For example, the US Departments of Energy and Agriculture have determined that the US could produce enough biomass from forestlands to supply 10% of the nation’s current petroleum consumption2. Forest bioenergy typically comes from three sources:
Wood waste Large quantities of wood that could be used to generate energy are often thrown away, including packaging materials, construction and demolition waste, tree trimmings, pallets, and other wood that ends up in landfills. Pulp, paper, and other mills also produce wood waste, generally using it to provide electricity and/or heat for these facilities.
 Forest residues Forest residue refers to wood that is cut during a logging operation but not removed because it not economical. This is largely tree tops and smaller limbs. Additional residues could be produced by thinning small trees from forests in order to provide more space to the remaining trees or to reduce fire risk.
 Wood energy crops Greater demand for wood bioenergy would make it desirable to create stands of fast-growing trees to be used specifically for energy production. These “crops” could be planted in poor-quality or unused farmlands and provide many ecosystem services, including more habitat for wildlife and reduced soil erosion.

Additional Resources

Sources:

1 U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Renewable Energy Consumption and Electricity Preliminary Statistics 2009, DOE/EIA (Washington, DC, August 2010).

2 Perlack, R.D., L.L. Wright, A. Turhollow, R. Graham, B. Stokes, and D. Erbach. 2005. Biomass as feedstock for a bioenergy and bioproducts industry: The technical feasibility of a billion-ton annual supply. Oak Ridge Nat. Lab. Tech. Rep. ORNL/TM-2006/66.

 

Last Modified: 08/02/2017