In her most recent post, Ellen Moyer explores the pitfalls of Biomass, Biofuel, Bioenergy, Biopower as an alternative to the carbon-spewing energy we have used since the industrial revolution.

Biomass, Biofuel, Bioenergy, Biopower - Myth or Reality?, boomer warrior

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Biomass, Biofuel, Bioenergy, Biopower – Myth or Reality?

Climate change is telling us to stop pitching pollution into the atmosphere – in much the same way that the bubonic plague taught our ancestors to stop dumping filth into the streets in the Middle Ages. We listened then, but not now.

Governments continue paying industries huge bonuses to release carbon into the atmosphere by burning fuels from fossilized plants and,increasingly, live plants (“biomass”). According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), global subsidies of fossil fuel use this year total an astronomical $5.3 trillion. The IMF estimates that eliminating subsidies would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent, reduce premature deaths from air pollution by 50 percent, and increase social welfare — from reduced environmental damage and higher revenue — by $1.8 trillion. Governments also heavily subsidize biopowerbiofuels, and other bioenergy technologies.

In this discussion, biomass energy, or “bioenergy,” refers to the use of energy primarily generated from plants and plant-derived materials. “Biopower” refers to electricity generated from the burning of biomass. “Biofuel” refers to liquid fuel such as corn ethanol (the primary biofuel in the U.S.) and biodiesel made from algae, animal fat, grasses, municipal solid waste, sugars, palm oil, vegetable oil, and wood. This article excludes other types of bioenergy — such as methane collected from landfills and wood burned for heat — and focuses on biopower fueled by wood and ethanol made from corn.

Worse for the Climate than Fossil Fuels

Governments justify subsidies for bioenergy by flawed carbon accounting policies and a myth that bioenergy is “carbon neutral.” This myth asserts that the regrowth of plants recaptures the carbon released from bioenergy, thereby preventing carbon from accumulating in the atmosphere. However, regrowth of plants can never be guaranteed, and even if regrowth occurs, it takes too long for bioenergy to be carbon neutral. Regrowth typically takes several months for agricultural crops and to up to 450 years for wood. Though the carbon-neutrality myth has been disproven, for example by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, it persists tenaciously in government policies, even in President Obama’s otherwise beneficial Clean Power Plan.

The stakes are high. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “forestry, agriculture, and other land use” is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for 24 percent of the total worldwide. This is just slightly less than the largest source, “electricity and heat production,” and much more than “transportation.”

Furthermore, when we cut down forests to feed greedy biopower plants, we remove natural “scrubbers” from our environment.

Biomass, Biofuel, Bioenergy, Biopower - Myth or Reality?, boomer warrior

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Ecosystems remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store the carbon in plants, dead organic matter, and soils. For example, U.S. forests store 12 percent of U.S. GHG emissions each year.

Biopower destroys carbon storage capacity by killing plants and disrupting soils. Biopower harms the climate more than coal, releasing 1.5 times as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated. It thus delivers a “double whammy” to the climate.

Biofuels perform no better. For example, it takes more than a gallon of petroleum to produce a gallon of ethanol. Furthermore, a gallon of ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of petroleum. The Environmental Working Group estimates that last year’s U.S. production and use of corn ethanol resulted in 27 million tons more carbon emissions than if Americans had used straight gasoline in their vehicles.

Not Renewable

Biopower proponents often claim that they use only waste wood for fuel; however, biopower plants’ voracious appetite for fuel invariably requires that they also burn whole trees. In 2009, five biopower plants were envisioned for Massachusetts. Animations created using the state’s and project proponents’ own data show that to fuel these facilities, the state’s forests would have been logged in only 9 to 16 years.

The cheapest way to procure wood is by clear-cutting forests, which is standard practice. Biopower devastates forests and the ecosystem services they provide. The Earth has already lost half its trees since human civilization began. Europe has exhausted its own forests, so forests in the southeastern U.S. are now being clear-cut and made into pellets that are shipped (using oil) across the Atlantic Ocean to supply wood fuel to biopower plants in Europe.

Similarly, corn for ethanol production is not renewable, says Cornell University agricultural scientist David Pimentel. “Corn production in the U.S. erodes soil about 12 times faster than the soil can be reformed, and irrigating corn mines groundwater 25 percent faster than the natural recharge rate of groundwater. The environmental system in which corn is being produced is being rapidly degraded.” In the U.S., corn production uses more land than any other crop, equal to an area about the size of California, and 40 percent of the corn crop is used to produce ethanol.

Fertilizer use for corn is massive, and much of the chemicals wash into lakes, rivers, and coastal oceans, polluting waters and damaging ecosystems along the way — such as the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area the size of New Jersey that is devoid of animal life. Pesticides and herbicides used in corn production kill wildlife and contaminate surface water, groundwater, and air. Ethanol also diverts corn from the food supply — driving up food costs worldwide. Yet government policies so richly reward ethanol production that huge areas of grassland and prairie have been recently converted to corn production, damaging waterways, wetlands, and wildlife.

Consumer Rip-off

Partly owing to their inefficiency, biopower plants require gigantic infusions of cash in order to be financially viable. They receive taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies in the form of Renewable Energy Credits, investment and production tax credits, and loan guarantees, which cost the public billions of dollars on top of payments for the electricity itself. In addition, nearly every country subsidizes the timber industry — which provides the fuel — through similar giveaways.

Ethanol contains about 76,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) per gallon, whereas gasoline contains about 114,000 BTUs per gallon. Therefore, to get the same amount of energy contained in a gallon of gasoline, a motorist must buy about 1.5 gallons of ethanol. As a consequence, E10 (which contains 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline) yields fewer miles per gallon than pure gasoline. That mileage penalty is paid at the pump through the purchase of additional fuel. Furthermore, since 1982, the price per unit of energy from ethanol has been about 2.4 times that of gasoline. Between 2007 and 2014, U.S. motorists incurred roughly $10 billion annually in fuel costs over and above what they would have paid for straight gasoline. Think about that the next time you fill up your gas tank.

On top of what we pay at the pump, we treat the powerful corn ethanol industry to a smorgasbord of other subsidies. Through federal tax credits, loan guarantees, grants, and other mechanisms, “billions of taxpayer dollars have been squandered on an industry that relentlessly seeks additional special interest carve-outs,” says Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a federal budget watchdog organization.

Citizens also pick up the tab for the damage caused by floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe weather events that are exacerbated by climate change.

End the Subsidies

Government policies designed to help industry at the expense of people and the environment are wrecking the climate. Bioenergy is so inefficient and expensive that it cannot function without subsidies from you and me. Therefore, one way to significantly help the climate is to end corporate welfare for the fossil fuel, big agriculture, and timber industries. This would spur clean energy innovation and competition — because energy conservation and efficiency and solar and other non-combustion technologies would no longer be financially disadvantaged.

It’s time to say no to corporate welfare and yes to clean energy. To successfully address our self-inflicted climate crisis, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and biomass for energy and begin preserving and restoring plants and soils. Governments are not likely to end their misguided policies on their own. Citizens must insist on constructive policy changes, just as our ancestors had to learn to stop dumping their filth in the streets in the era of the bubonic plague.

*

boomerwarrior.org

Ellen Moyer is a writer, speaker, engineer, and environmental advocate whose mission is to help restore the environment and promote a healthier way for us to inhabit the Earth. She has authored two books. Her third, currently in progress, describes how our current environmental, health, and economic crises provide a grand opportunity for humans to evolve to the next level.

You can connect with her on LinkedIn Facebook and her website.

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Ellen Moyer is an environmental consultant and registered professional engineer with a BA in anthropology, an MS in environmental engineering, and a PhD in civil engineering. Her third book, Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves: How to Thrive While Creating a Sustainable World, quickly became Amazon’s “Hot New Release” in the categories of Green Business, Nature Conservation, and Environmentalism. Please visit her website [www.ellenmoyerphd.com] for information on her books, articles, speaking, and consulting. There, she also invites you to subscribe to her free environmental petition-signing service, sign up for occasional email updates, and/or connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook.

16 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a concerted and misguided attempt to misinform and mislead people as this piece Ellen Moyer has published. It would be easy to pick apart her arguments on all points and expose the truth. She assumes for example that just because we have taken down more trees in the past than we have planted, and that we will continue to do so, I find to be absurd. Her example of people having stopped tossing filth in the streets illustrates humans are able to change their ways once they understand the consequences of what they are doing.

  2. Unfortunately, I think Ellen is right, the biofuels are no answer and certainly not ‘green’ or ‘clean.’ The sustainability claims are erroneous in the sense that the volumes required for power generation and fuel simply outweigh the current available sources that could be described as even close to ‘sustainable.’

    Indonesia, a top producer of Oil Palm, has just gone through one of the most devastating fires in its history, all because of ‘slash and burn’ of Rainforest for increased plantations. The threat to endangered species, is now approaching critical levels. Malaysia and Thailand, number 2 and 3 top sources of Oil Palm are now being chased by Oil Palm production in Africa and South America along the equatorial belts. The estimate is that if all production increase goes ahead, the tropical rainforest could disappear within a generation. The loss to the world will not only mean one of the biggest species loss, but also significant changes in rainfall patterns that will severely affect the oil Palm monoculture, increase disease rates in the oil Palm and render the whole process as ineffectual.

    The UK has maybe 18% tree cover. It destroyed its oak forests millennia ago…they have never returned, replaced by grazing animals and crops. It suffers floods and droughts that happen quickly within a few days largely because there is nothing in the landscape to hold moisture. The same is now occurring in countries that are clearing their forest cover to critically low levels.

    For all of you who haven’t realised…Oil Palm is the biofuel of South East Asia and it appears in everything from soap, shampoo, toothpaste, household cleansers, makeup, lotions, and half the foodstuffs on supermarket shelves (mostly described as ‘vegetable oil’). It is a big and very lucrative market for investors.

    In Britain, Drax operates a biomass power station. Everyday, special trains arrive with tons of wood chips brought from European forests to feed this monster.

    If anything, I thing Ellen has understated the biofuel problem.

    Led, you might be thinking in purely practical terms, but what is happening in reality, out there in industry, is only paying lip service to sustainable models.

    This is one of the most moving documentaries I’ve seen about the removal of Rainforest. Two years on from my first viewing, it still bring tears.

  3. Unfortunately, I think Ellen is right, the biofuels are no answer and certainly not ‘green’ or ‘clean.’ The sustainability claims are erroneous in the sense that the volumes required for power generation and fuel simply outweigh the current available sources that could be described as even close to ‘sustainable.’

    Indonesia, a top producer of Oil Palm, has just gone through one of the most devastating fires in its history, all because of ‘slash and burn’ of Rainforest for increased plantations. The threat to endangered species, is now approaching critical levels. Malaysia and Thailand, number 2 and 3 top sources of Oil Palm are now being chased by Oil Palm production in Africa and South America along the equatorial belts. The estimate is that if all production increase goes ahead, the tropical rainforest could disappear within a generation. The loss to the world will not only mean one of the biggest species loss, but also significant changes in rainfall patterns that will severely affect the oil Palm monoculture, increase disease rates in the oil Palm and render the whole process as ineffectual.

    The UK has maybe 18% tree cover. It destroyed its oak forests millennia ago…they have never returned, replaced by grazing animals and crops. It suffers floods and droughts that happen quickly within a few days largely because there is nothing in the landscape to hold moisture. The same is now occurring in countries that are clearing their forest cover to critically low levels.

    For all of you who haven’t realised…Oil Palm is the biofuel of South East Asia and it appears in everything from soap, shampoo, toothpaste, household cleansers, makeup, lotions, and half the foodstuffs on supermarket shelves (mostly described as ‘vegetable oil’). It is a big and very lucrative market for investors.

    In Britain, Drax operates a biomass power station. Everyday, special trains arrive with tons of wood chips brought from European forests to feed this monster.

    If anything, I thing Ellen has understated the biofuel problem.

    Led, you might be thinking in purely practical terms, but what is happening in reality, out there in industry, is only paying lip service to sustainable models.

    This is one of the most moving documentaries I’ve seen about the removal of Rainforest. Two years on from my first viewing, it still bring tears.

    http://greenplanetstream.org/all_films/green/

  4. Collette – Thanks for your insights. We need to stop destroying forests everywhere. I may have understated the biofuels problem because, unlike the other side, I wanted to back up everything I wrote with unassailable science.

    It’s funny. When I receive comments from people with opposing views, like from Les (above), they don’t provide any backup or evidence. They just say “take my word for it – she’s full of it.” People in the biomass/biofuels industries think all they need to do is make unsubstantiated proclamations and people will just roll over. I hope those days are nearly over.

  5. Ellen and all:

    Biomass Energy’s Greenhouse Gas Benefits are well understood by scientists.

    A new study, funded in part by the Department of Energy (DOE), finds that burning biomass to generate electricity could offset up to 107 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over 100 years, and even greater offsets could be achieved with additional measures involving a biomass fertilizer called “biochar.” The new study, “Sustainable Biochar to Mitigate Global Climate Change,” published in the journal Nature Communications, contradicts a study by the state of Massachusetts’ energy department which argues that burning biomass creates more GHGs than an energy equivalent amount of coal. That report came under broad attack from the biomass industry and others. The new study quantifies the GHG-offset benefits from both burning biomass for electricity and from producing biochar using non-food sources of biomass, such as corn leaves and rice husks. Producing biochar, which involves high-temperature incineration to decompose biomass, would offset annually up to 1.8 billion metric tons of GHG emissions and up to 23 billion metric tons more GHG emissions than biomass energy alone in the first 100 years of production, according to the study. Biochar avoids more GHGs because it can be used as fertilizer to stimulate additional sources of biomass. For comparison, the study notes that human activities produce 15.4 billion metric tons of GHG emissions annually.
    The Study:
    Sustainable Biochar to Mitigate Global Climate Change
    Dominic Woolf, James E. Amonete, F. Alayne Street-Perrott, Johannes Lehmann & Stephen Joseph
    Nature Communications
    Volume: 1, Article number; 56
    Received 29 October 2009
    Accepted 14 July 2010
    Published 10 August 2010
    Abstract
    Production of biochar (the carbon (C)-rich solid formed by pyrolysis of biomass) and its storage in soils have been suggested as a means of abating climate change by sequestering carbon, while simultaneously providing energy and increasing crop yields. Substantial uncertainties exist, however, regarding the impact, capacity and sustainability of biochar at the global level. In this paper we estimate the maximum sustainable technical potential of biochar to mitigate climate change. Annual net emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide could be reduced by a maximum of 1.8?Pg CO2-C equivalent (CO2-Ce) per year (12% of current anthropogenic CO2-Ce emissions; 1?Pg=1?Gt), and total net emissions over the course of a century by 130?Pg CO2-Ce, without endangering food security, habitat or soil conservation. Biochar has a larger climate-change mitigation potential than combustion of the same sustainably procured biomass for bioenergy, except when fertile soils are amended while coal is the fuel being offset.
    To learn more, visit: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v1/n5/full/ncomms1053.html.

  6. Though few people have objections to renewable energy, plenty have misgivings about having it generated on or near their property for use by others. Wind power seems to be generating as many objections as megawatts. These objections include sullied sightlines, noise, perceived health risks and the misuse of eminent domain to route power lines.

    Attention is getting paid to the objections. Last week, Blake Hurst, a farmer and President of the Missouri Farm Bureau, posted a column in The Wall Street Journal on power lines. He began by comparing the situation today to that of generations ago, when his grandfather, also a farmer, welcomed towers for lines that first brought electricity to his area. In that case, Hurst wrote, the sacrifice of having to farm the towers and the danger of having a high voltage line near farm equipment was worth it because of the benefits electricity brought to the community at large.

  7. Les – Note that my article did not discuss biochar.

    Another thing the other side does, in the absence of facts, is character attacks. BTW, I think you are thinking of Bill Moyers (with an “s”).

  8. It is true and not a myth that bioenergy is “carbon neutral” just as much as it is correct to say that if there were no fossil fuels ever – man could not have pumped trillions of tons of Co2 into the earth’s atmosphere by bringing them to the surface and burning them and releasing those trillions of tons of Co2.

  9. By the way I agree that Government policies designed to help the fossil fuels industry are wrecking the climate. But I do not agree that bioenergy is so inefficient and expensive that it cannot function without subsidies. Ask yourself how long has man used fires to keep warm and to cook.

    I also agree, one way to significantly help the climate is to end corporate welfare for the fossil fuel, big agriculture, and timber industries. This would spur clean energy innovation and competition — because energy conservation and efficiency and biomass and wind and solar would no longer be financially disadvantaged.

  10. Studies can be both truthful and good and untruthful (or at least lacking all the information). We all know this. Statistics can be shown as percentages which are often misleading if the statistical sample is very small. I.e. if two sample people are tested for Colon cancer and one of them is positive, one could surmise that 50% of the population may have Colon cancer.

    In your (very good) piece on biochar production (Les), the figures look optimal for reducing CO2 output, but the paper also says …

    “Clearance of rainforests to provide land for biomass-crop production leads to carbon payback times in excess of 50 years. Where rainforest on peatland is converted to biomass-crop production, carbon-payback times may be in the order of 325 years.
    We therefore assume that no land clearance will be used to provide biomass feedstock, nor do we include conversion of agricultural land from food to biomass-crop production as a sustainable source of feedstock, both because of the negative consequences for food security and because it may indirectly induce land clearance elsewhere26.”

    These are wise words, and if I were convinced that our natural environments would not be destroyed for the specific growth of biofuel, and instead, only pure agricultural wastewere used, I would say it could be a very good option.

    Keeping our agricultural practice’s environmentally sustainable is a challenge. Equatorial countries have traditionally seen (well for the last few millennia) their forests as a resource to be used in whatever way they wish – (and no different to Europe or North America in that regard). The clearance of natural forests has been seen as making something useless into ‘productive’ grazing or crop growing land. So far, many countries have seen it to be more profitable to simply ‘grow’ biofuel crops, rather than use any true agricultural waste. Hopefully this will change, but it is likely to be a more expensive prospect to collect waste from many areas, than to grow it specifically in one area. Who will include that prospect in their projected biofuel scenarios?

  11. I appreciate the discussion, and especially your comments, Collette. I believe we need to fix our policies by removing subsidies, valuing ecosystem services, and charging for environmental damage. Then technologies could compete honestly on a level playing field. Solar and wind would do even better than they are now, and most bioenergy technologies – especially the two big monsters: wood-burning biopower and ethanol – would end. In Massachusetts, when we changed the regs to curtail corporate welfare for wood-burning biomass plants, the 4 proposed biomass plants in the state did not go forward. This supports my statement that they can’t operate without subsidies, and there is plenty of other evidence, some of which I cited in the article.

  12. Tim Flannery in Atmosphere of Hope emphasizes the potential of seaweed forests. His numbers suggest a total offset solution to climate change. Corn to ethanol certainly was certainly a lost cause, consuming more energy than produced. One hope I had from several years back was algae in plastic bags, but Professor Flannery mentions a cost to that of separating by centrifuge.

    I remain convinced the human nature driven need not to give up any believed in lifestyle gain (consumer based) to be the root barrier to solving the climate change crisis.

    Our Near Future
    https://0urnearfuture.wordpress.com/books/

  13. Les – I’m skeptical of seaweed for energy – and the environmental impacts.

    I believe we don’t need to sacrifice to fix the climate. A clean and green way of life can be superior to what we have now – less respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer from cleaner air, for example. More control over our energy – on our own roof instead of supplied by a power plant. Etc. Like in the Middle Ages when we stopped throwing waste in the streets, life will get better.

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