Bioenergy is renewable energy made available from materials derived from biological sources. In its most narrow sense it is a synonym to biofuel, which is fuel derived from biological sources. In its broader sense it includes biomass, the biological material used as a biofuel, as well as the social, economic, scientific and technical fields associated with using biological sources for energy. This is a common misconception, as bioenergy is the energy extracted from the biomass, as the biomass is the fuel and the bioenergy is the energy contained in the fuel.

Biomass is any organic material which has stored sunlight in the form of chemical energy. As a fuel it may include wood, wood waste, straw, manure, sugar cane, and many other byproducts from a variety of agricultural processes.

There is a slight tendency for the word bioenergy to be favoured in Europe compared with biofuel in North America.

Solid Biomass

Biomass is material derived from recently living organisms, which includes plants, animals and their byproducts. Manure, garden waste and crop residues are all sources of biomass. It is a renewable energy source based on the carbon cycle, unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal, and nuclear fuels.

Animal waste is a persistent and unavoidable pollutant produced primarily by the animals housed in industrial-sized farms.

There are also agricultural products being grown for biofuel production. These include corn, switchgrass, and soybeans, primarily in the United States; rapeseed, wheat and sugar beet primarily in Europe; sugar cane in Brazil; palm oil and miscanthus in Southeast Asia; sorghum and cassava in China; and jatropha in India. Hemp has also been proven to work as a biofuel. Biodegradable outputs from industry, agriculture, forestry and households can be used for biofuel production, using e.g. anaerobic digestion to produce biogas, gasification to produce syngas or by direct combustion. Examples of biodegradable wastes include straw, timber, manure, rice husks, sewage, and food waste. The use of biomass fuels can therefore contribute to waste management as well as fuel security and help to prevent or slow down climate change, although alone they are not a comprehensive solution to these problems.

Electricity generation from biomass

Electricity from sugarcane bagasse in Brazil

Sugar/Ethanol Plant located in Piracicaba, São Paulo State. This plant produces the electricity it needs from baggasse residuals from sugarcane left over by the milling process, and it sells the surplus electricity to the public grid.

Sucrose accounts for little more than 30% of the chemical energy stored in the mature plant; 35% is in the leaves and stem tips, which are left in the fields during harvest, and 35% are in the fibrous material (bagasse) left over from pressing.

The production process of sugar and ethanol in Brazil takes full advantage of the energy stored in sugarcane. Part of the baggasse is currently burned at the mill to provide heat for distillation and electricity to run the machinery. This allows ethanol plants to be energetically self-sufficient and even sell surplus electricity to utilities; current production is 600 MW for self-use and 100 MW for sale. This secondary activity is expected to boom now that utilities have been induced to pay "fair price "(about US$10/GJ or US$0.036/kWh) for 10 year contracts. This is approximately half of what the World Bank considers the reference price for investing in similar projects (see below). The energy is especially valuable to utilities because it is produced mainly in the dry season when hydroelectric dams are running low. Estimates of potential power generation from bagasse range from 1,000 to 9,000 MW, depending on technology. Higher estimates assume gasification of biomass, replacement of current low-pressure steam boilers and turbines by high-pressure ones, and use of harvest trash currently left behind in the fields. For comparison, Brazil's Angra I nuclear plant generates 657 MW.

Presently, it is economically viable to extract about 288 MJ of electricity from the residues of one tonne of sugarcane, of which about 180 MJ are used in the plant itself. Thus a medium-size distillery processing 1 million tonnes of sugarcane per year could sell about 5 MW of surplus electricity. At current prices, it would earn US$ 18 million from sugar and ethanol sales, and about US$ 1 million from surplus electricity sales. With advanced boiler and turbine technology, the electricity yield could be increased to 648 MJ per tonne of sugarcane, but current electricity prices do not justify the necessary investment. (According to one report, the World Bank would only finance investments in bagasse power generation if the price were at least US$19/GJ or US$0.068/kWh.)

Bagasse burning is environmentally friendly compared to other fuels like oil and coal. Its ash content is only 2.5% (against 30-50% of coal), and it contains no sulfur. Since it burns at relatively low temperatures, it produces little nitrous oxides. Moreover, bagasse is being sold for use as a fuel (replacing heavy fuel oil) in various industries, including citrus juice concentrate, vegetable oil, ceramics, and tyre recycling. The state of São Paulo alone used 2 million tonnes, saving about US$ 35 million in fuel oil imports.

Researchers working with cellulosic ethanol are trying to make the extraction of ethanol from sugarcane bagasse and other plants viable on an industrial scale.