What is biomass power?

Biomass power is the energy derived from animal or vegetable matter, which can be harnessed to generate electricity.

In Québec, there are three types of biomass with significant energy potential: forest, agrifood and urban biomass. Forest biomass is the most frequently used source of energy, with slash continuing to show development potential.

The methods used to produce energy with biomass vary depending on the type of biomass and its intended use. In Québec solid biomass combustion is widely used; biomethanization and gasification could be interesting avenues to explore.

Forest biomass storage

To learn more about biomass power, see the data sheet [PDF]

Current state of knowledge

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, biomass accounted for 10.2% of the world’s total output of primary energy (energy that has not undergone any conversion or transformation) in 2008. The International Energy Agency projects that it will be the fastest-growing renewable energy source between now and 2030, providing as much as 30% of the power consumed worldwide by 2050.

In Canada, only about 4.4% of the primary energy consumed comes from biomass. Nevertheless, it is the second-biggest source of renewable energy, after hydropower.

In Québec, forest biomass is the most frequently used organic matter due to its ready availability and the maturity of the generating method involved.

Biomass potential

In 2009, biomass generated 27.5 EJ/year (7,639 TWh/year) of primary energy worldwide. While most biomass energy is used to produce heat, it also generates 158 TWh/year of electricity. Canada is the world’s seventh-largest producer of primary energy and electricity from biomass.

In 2011, Québec’s potential forest, agrifood and urban biomass was estimated at 19.5 million tonnes of dry matter, representing gross thermal energy of 334 PJ/year (93 TWh/year). A total of 42% of that energy is already being harnessed. Forest biomass is the most frequently used type, with only slash consistently showing significant potential for power generation. Urban and agrifood biomass has not yet been widely harnessed as a source of energy, except for cooking oil.

Output and costs

In a cogeneration (electricity and steam) plant fueled by forest biomass, 30% to 35% of the energy in the solid biomass can be converted into electricity, during the steam cycle. By recovering the heat produced and using it for other purposes, total efficiency can exceed 80%.

From 1999 to 2009, upfront costs in Québec were much lower and more stable for forest biomass than fuel oil. However, the technical infrastructure required for biomass power costs slightly more than comparable technologies using fossil fuels. The reason: since biomass has a lower energy density than fossil fuels, a larger quantity of biomass and consequently greater infrastructure are needed to produce the same amount of electricity.

Harnessing urban and agrifood biomass would be profitable in terms of avoided landfill costs, especially since they have climbed significantly in recent years.

Main technical advantages and disadvantages

  • Relatively low and stable upfront costs for forest biomass
  • Continuous source of power, unlike wind and photovoltaic solar power
  • Lower energy density than fossil fuels
  • Large-scale operations expensive because biomass resources are widely dispersed
  • Need to build biomass-fueled cogeneration plants near the resource or near power transmission lines
  • Complexity of using urban biomass, particularly because of waste diversity: need for sorting operations, a range of processing technologies, etc.

Major sustainable development issues

Here are the main issues associated with generating electricity from biomass:

  • Reclamation of industrial wood waste, which would otherwise be buried
  • Loss of biodiversity and soil depletion if insufficient slash is left onsite
  • Production of air contaminants during biomass combustion and transportation (increased trucking of slash)
  • Impacts related to biomass storage: contaminant leaching, odor and esthetic nuisances
  • Production of end waste (e.g., wood ash) that can be difficult to reclaim due to its metal content.

NB: Issues related to the production of biofuel for the transportation industry from agrifood and urban biomass are not discussed in this document.

See also

To learn more about biomass power, see the data sheet.

  • Types of biomass in Québec
  • Methods of harnessing biomass energy
  • Harvesting forest biomass
  • Energy potential of biomass in Québec
  • Price comparison: forest biomass vs. fuel oil in Québec
  • Climate change and air quality
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Health and quality of life
  • Land use, regional economy and social acceptability