Biomass is humanity’s oldest, most primitive source of energy. It works by unleashing the solar energy stored within biological material, such as wood, bark, branches, shrubs, grass, corn, algae, and even poop! We still use biomass energy much in the way we always have—through the direct combustion of woody and other organic material, for instance, when basking in the warmth of a crackling campfire or firing up a wood stove in a rustic mountain cabin. This is much how we use it at The Catto Center at Toklat, in traditional wood-burning potbellied stoves for heating.

The same basic concept behind the production of electricity and heat in coal and gas-fired power plants can also accommodate the direct combustion of biomass. In this way, biomass can be burned in a boiler and the heat from this process diverted to make steam to spin a turbine that makes electricity, or the heat can be used directly for industrial and residential use, or both can happen at once!

Surprisingly, biomass amounts to nearly 10% of the world’s energy supply today, but mostly in primitive forms in poorer regions. Modern use is commonplace in areas like Europe, where biomass energy provides more than 20% of the total energy supply of several countries, including Austria and Finland. Here in Colorado, biomass is providing renewable and affordable heat for buildings of all types – from small homes heated by wood pellet stoves to larger campuses heated by commercial wood chip boilers. In the future, biomass will also help generate renewable electricity for our state. Biomass can play an important role in the urgently needed transition to renewable energy, but careful case-by-case consideration is needed to ensure that biomass energy projects are clean, sustainable, reliable, and economical.

If biomass is cultivated and harvested in a way that allows regrowth without depleting nutrient and water resources, it is a renewable resource that can be used to generate energy on demand, with little or no net contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions. By burning biomass fuels we release no more carbon dioxide than would have been produced in any case by natural processes such as crop and plant decay and no more than will be absorbed by the plants as they regrow. Secondly, provided our consumption of biomass does not exceed our ability to continually supply the biomass feedstock we use, we have a renewable energy source whose use does not substantially disturb the natural biochemical cycle on a human time scale.