Energy released from organic matter.

During its life cycle, organic matter like trees and plants collects energy from the sun in a process called photosynthesis. As the organic matter – called biomass – decomposes or is burned, that stored energy gets released as biomass energy.

Watch this quick 2-minute video about how biomass energy works:

Is biomass energy renewable?

Since organic matter can be replaced in a relatively short amount of time, biomass is considered a renewable energy source. It’s also a very common one; if you’ve ever burned wood in a fireplace or used a charcoal grill for cooking, you’ve used biomass energy.

In 2020, biomass provided roughly 5% of the total primary energy use in the U.S.*

Before the mid-1800s, biomass was the largest source of U.S. energy consumption. In other countries, biomass is still an important fuel for cooking and heating. And as countries see renewable energy as a way to avoid the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that come from burning fossil fuels, biomass is once again becoming an important energy source. In 2020, biomass provided roughly 5% of the total primary energy use in the U.S.*

Here are some of the benefits of biomass energy:

  • Biomass is widely available in many forms.
  • Biomass energy is less expensive to produce than fossil fuels.
  • Using biomass as an energy source reduces garbage in landfills.
  • Since biomass only releases the CO2 that it captures, it’s 100% carbon neutral.
  • Biomass energy helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

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How biomass energy works:

While there are many sources of biomass energy, there are two major ways to harness biomass energy to generate electricity: burning and decomposition.

Depending on what type of biomass is used, the organic waste is either burned to produce heat or decomposed to produce methane gas, which is then burned to produce heat.

Heat – biomass energy – is used to boil water, which turns into steam.

The steam spins a turbine, powering a generator and creating electricity that we can use to power our lives.

Types of biomass energy:

Tree & plant waste

Whether it’s produced by industrial manufacturing or by the average home, any plant or wood waste can be burned to harness biomass energy.

Some common waste from trees and plants includes:

  • Firewood, wood pellets and wood chips
  • Lumber and sawdust
  • Black liquor from pulp and paper mills
  • Dead leaves and yard clippings

Crops

Agricultural crops and farm waste materials can either be burned or allowed to decompose, releasing biomass energy.

The most common crop waste comes from:

  • Corn
  • Soybeans
  • Sugar cane
  • Switchgrass
  • Woody plants
  • Algae
  • Crop and food
    processing residues

Solid waste

Any organic waste from human activity can be burned or decomposed to generate electricity from biomass energy.

Solid waste can include:

  • Paper and paperboard
  • Textiles such as cotton and wool
  • Food waste
  • Rubber and leather

Landfill gas & biogas

Organic waste is generated daily from both cattle farms and landfills, which decomposes and releases methane gas that’s ignited to release biomass energy.

The largest sources of methane gas are:

  • Animal waste, collected in large tanks filled with bacteria that eat the waste and convert it to methane
  • Landfill gas, largely methane, collected by closing off a landfill and running pipes from the waste that collect the gas

If left to decompose on its own, landfill and animal waste will release its methane into the atmosphere. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide, it’s the second-biggest contributor to climate change when it’s left to escape into the atmosphere. So by capturing methane for use as a biomass energy source, we can help reduce the effects of climate change in two ways!

Biomass facts:

Biomass is a renewable energy source because trees and crops can always be grown.

Biomass has been around since the beginning of time, when humans burned wood for heating and cooking.

If you’ve ever been near a campfire or a fireplace, you’ve witnessed biomass energy through the burning of wood.

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Biomass energy is just one of the ways that we can put waste products to good use and reduce our carbon footprint. When you choose to power your home with 100% renewable energy, you can do your part to make sure that the future looks cleaner and greener.

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*U.S. Energy Information Administration
This page is for general educational purposes only.

Explore more renewable energy sources:

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Geothermal Energy

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Hydroelectricity

Harnessing the energy of flowing rivers, oceans and waterfalls.

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Biomass Energy

Releasing and reusing the energy stored in waste and organic matter.

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