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Energy

Biomass

This is a single-pass, cut-and-chip harvester reaping fast-growing willow for a carbon-neutral biomass plant, part of Germany’s Energiewende or “energy turnaround.” Germany currently produces over 30 percent of its energy from wood, but when the total cost of harvesting and processing wood is calculated, it is not carbon neutral. The industry exists because of significant government subsidies.

Biomass energy is a “bridge” solution—one that can help the world transition from fossil-fuel power to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. Until energy storage grows and the grid becomes more flexible, it can help meet electricity demand, complementing variable wind and solar power.

Carbon-rich biomass can be harvested to produce heat, create steam for electricity production, or be processed into oil or gas. Doing so trades in carbon that is already in circulation, cycling from atmosphere to plants and back again. Grow plants and sequester carbon. Process and burn biomass. Emit carbon. Repeat. It produces net zero new emissions, so long as use and replenishment remain in balance.

Biomass energy is a true solution only if it uses appropriate feedstock, such as waste from mills and agriculture or sustainably grown perennial crops. Using annual grain crops like corn and sorghum depletes groundwater and requires high inputs of energy. Using native forests is nothing less than an atrocity.

It is crucial to manage the drawbacks of biomass energy through regulation. Most important to bear in mind is that biomass—carefully deployed—is a means to reach a clean energy future, not the destination itself.

References

Perennial herbaceous grasses; Woody crops: Toensmeier, Eric. The Carbon Farming Solution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016; El Bassam, Nasir. Handbook of Bioenergy Crops: A Complete Reference to Species, Development and Applications. Routledge, 2010.

[U.S.] biomass electricity generation plants: “Biomass Energy Overview.” Partnership for Policy Integrity. April 2011.

land…food…biomass…interact dynamically: Kline, Keith L., Siwa Msangi, Virginia H. Dale, Jeremy Woods, Glaucia M. Souza, Patricia Osseweijer, Joy S. Clancy et al. “Reconciling Food Security and Bioenergy: Priorities for Action.” GCB Bioenergy 9 (2016): 557-576; Zilberman, David. “Indirect Land Use Change: Much Ado About (Almost) Nothing.” Global Change Biology, Bioenergy 9 (2016): 485–488.

2 percent of global electricity production: REN21. Renewables 2016 Global Status Report. Paris: REN21 Secretariat, 2016.

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Errata

p. 17

Correction: Germany currently produces 7 percent of its energy from biomass.

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