Harmonic Destruction

How Greens Justify Bioenergy’s Assault on Nature

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On the face of it, energy from biomass would seem to embody the ecological vision: an energy source rooted in the soil, attuned to the seasons, and governed by life’s cycling rhythms of growth, decay, and reuse. But today, that expression of the ecological vision is ravaging nature in the name of saving it. Consider that half of Germany’s timber harvest is now burned for fuel, and 17 percent of its arable land is used to grow crops for biodiesel, ethanol, and biogas production, a proportion that may rise to one third by 2020. If it’s painfully obvious that biomass energy is environmentally destructive, why do so many greens continue to support—or at least tolerate—its widespread use? Among the justifications, most prominent is the reality that vastly expanded biomass is the only “renewable” way to backstop the intermittency of solar and wind. Against this idealized (and misleading) ecological vision, the essay argues that “As we construct a material and technological basis for a sustainable way of life, we will need to look beyond the rules and resources of biology and ecology.”

February 11, 2014 | Will Boisvert,

Read a summary of the essay here.

Look at the brochures of just about any environmental organization and what you will see are images of an energy system that appears to lie weightlessly on the land. Solar panels gleam atop suburban homes. Wind turbines sprout from fields where cows graze contentedly. It is a high-tech, bucolic vision that suggests a future in which humankind might finally live in harmony with nature, rather than waging ceaseless war with it.

But there are other images to consider as well. Trees clear-cut, chipped, and fed into boilers. Once diverse forests turned into monocrop plantations. Wild places sent under the plow. And melting ice caps from global warming. This is the underside of renewable bioenergy — biomass, biofuels, and biogases – one that is decidedly at odds with the ethos of pristine eco-friendliness described in the brochures.

On the face of it, bioenergy would seem to embody the ecological vision: an energy source rooted in the soil, attuned to the seasons, and governed by life’s cycling rhythms of growth, decay, and reuse. But today, that expression of the ecological vision is destroying nature in order to save it. From the production forests of Germany to the rainforests of Southeast Asia to the American Midwest, we are using millions of square miles of land for crops to feed our cars and power plants that could be used to feed people or become wilderness.

As the scale of the carnage has become evident, a growing number of environmentalists have turned against biofuels. But the change of heart about present generation biofuels hasn’t stopped their rapid expansion. Biofuels represent one of the fastest growing wedges of the renewables pie. Germany’s heavy investments in solar and wind get most of the attention, but 29 percent of its renewable electricity comes from burning woody biomass in power plants.1 Throw in liquid biofuel production and wood-fired space heating and biomass provides 38 percent of Germany’s non-fossil-fueled energy.2

Half of Germany’s timber harvest is now burned for fuel,3 and 17 percent of its arable land is used to grow energy crops for biodiesel, ethanol, and biogas production, a proportion that may rise to one third by 2020.4 The rest of Europe is also turning to biomass heating and electricity generated in refitted coal plants as an easy way to meet renewable energy mandates, using millions of tons of domestic and imported wood.5 Energy derived from ethanol in the United States far outstrips the power generated by the wind and solar sectors.6

The growing reliance upon biofuels as public commitments to renewables have grown is neither an accident nor a coincidence. The renewable energy paradigm requires an unprecedented industrial reengineering of the landscape: lining every horizon with forty-story wind turbines, paving deserts with concentrating solar mirrors, girdling the coasts with tidal and wave generators, and drilling for geological heat reservoirs; it sees all of nature as an integrated machine for producing energy.

Bioenergy is, at present, an indispensable feature of that landscape because it provides one of the only renewably generated sources of the stable power that’s needed to shore up the chaotically intermittent output of wind and solar generators. While wind and solar get the photos and the headlines, dispatchable generators – hydro dams, geothermal wells, and biomass burners – are an increasingly important part of the grid in places like Germany.

Perhaps, as some advocates suggest, the next generation of biofuels will resolve these knotty issues. Or large-scale energy storage technologies will resolve the intermittency challenges associated with wind and solar. But the problems associated with biofuels point to a deeper flaw in green ideology: the notion that, to be sustainable, human civilization must be “ecological” – modeled on ecological processes, regulated by an ecological calculus of efficiency, bounded and limited by the resources of the biosphere in which we are embedded.

As imagined by supporters, bioenergy represents an idealized ecosystem – a closed loop of perennial abundance supported by a perfectly efficient recycling of wastes, self-sufficient and self-contained, generating no externalities and requiring no inputs except sunlight. It’s also a suggestive model of how human society can be remade into a sustainable ecosystem.

That’s not only a grossly distorted picture of bioenergy as it exists, but also a profoundly wrong-headed concept of what human society should be. As we construct a material and technological basis for a sustainable way of life, we will need to look beyond the rules and resources of biology and ecology. Making civilization conform to an idealized model of nature turns out to be bad for civilization and downright disastrous for nature.

1.

For most of human history, biomass – burned or fed to draft animals – was the main source of energy, and the cutting, growing, and hunting of it has always had severe environmental repercussions. Early modern Europe was extensively deforested to get wood for heating and charcoal for metallurgical fuel. Many whale species were hunted to the verge of extinction for their oil – a good lamp biofuel – in the 19th century before kerosene from the nascent petroleum industry replaced it as a lighting fuel.

Far from being an unalloyed environmental disaster, the shift from bioenergy to fossil fuels over the last few centuries permitted the developed world to preserve and regrow much of its forest cover while supplying the Industrial Revolution’s immense demand for energy. But the manifold environmental problems of fossil fuels, and the bullying behavior of the corporate combines that control them, have kept alive a vision of a more natural, populist energy supply grown in sunlit fields rather than mined from the Hadean underworld.

These impulses surface reliably in times of economic upheaval. During the Great Depression the vision was voiced by the “chemurgy” movement, whose ideas anticipated many themes of latter-day renewables theorists. Comprised of businessmen and farmers opposed to New Deal policies that restricted agricultural output, the chemurgists sought to bolster the farm economy by diversifying away from food and apparel into industrial products.

The chemurgic ideal of civilization was a symbiosis of agriculture and industry modeled on Nature, thriftily regenerating every year without depleting mineral stocks or intruding into wilderness, with no external inputs other than sunlight. Among their projects was a car made partially out of soybeans and hemp;7 more practical was their call to blend corn ethanol into the nation’s gasoline supply(even then peak oil was presumed to be a decade away), a biofuel scheme that would take control of energy away from the Rockefellers and give it back to yeoman farmers.

The movement went beyond marketing initiatives to elaborate a grand notion of a “sustainable” economy, as we would now call it. One of the leading chemurgists was Henry Ford. Deeply ambivalent about the industrial society he helped create, Ford hoped that it could be refounded on an agrarian basis. He foresaw “a time when industry shall no longer denude the forests which require generations to mature, nor use up the mines which were ages in the making, but shall draw its raw material largely from the annual produce of the fields.”9

Others conceptualized the landscape in very modern terms, as a vast integrated production system running on solar power. “Agriculture,” declared one speaker at a 1935 chemurgy conference, “is essentially a synthetic organic chemical industry … using energy bountifully supplied by the sun”10 to the tune of 400 horsepower per acre.11

Though the sustainability crisis of the day hinged on unemployment and bankruptcies rather than greenhouse emissions, chemurgists saw society’s problems in terms of a technological civilization in existential and spiritual conflict with the natural order. According to the conference’s Declaration of Dependence Upon the Soil: “When, in the course of the life of a nation, its people become neglectful of the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, so that their very existence is put in peril, necessity impels them to turn to the soil” and thus restore the farmer’s “right of self-maintenance."12

The chemurgy movement subsided in the postwar boom. Rather than industry becoming more agricultural and biomass-based, American agriculture became industrial, high-tech, and fossil-fueled. As usual, there were environmental benefits as well as pitfalls: because industrial cultivation boosted harvests and cut food prices, much marginal farmland went out of production and returned to forest and wildlife habitat.

Biomass and biofuel schemes surged anew after the oil price shocks of the 1970s.13 High heating oil prices sparked a comeback for wood-burning stoves, and the chemurgists’ corn ethanol program was dusted off and given government support. This time the crisis was felt to be one of permanent resource scarcity, which inspired countless proposals to restore self-sufficiency by gleaning and reusing energy from the unlikeliest bits of biomass. Peak natural gas was seen on the horizon then, and so emerged ideas for producing methane out of everything from municipal garbage to water hyacinths growing on sewage.14

Once again there was a pronounced moral and social dimension to this vision of sustainability, which would force a heedless consumer society to recycle its waste and embrace the virtue of thrift. Bioenergy was again toasted as the people’s power, available to barefoot subsistence farmers the world over. In 1979 the New York Times reported that India would soon boast 18.75 million rural households with manure-fed biogas generators and another 560,000 village-scale plants.15

And once again, the urgent plans for the large-scale deployment of bioenergy fizzled as huge new deposits of fossil fuels were tapped and energy prices plummeted.

2.

The turn of the 21st century saw the biggest revival yet of biomass energy, this time in response to the threat of global warming, a crisis not of slowdown and shortage, but of surfeit and bounty created by a world economy choking on the gaseous excesses of its own prosperity. The closed-loop self-containment of biological systems that so captivated the chemurgists made biomass energy a perfect fit with the renewable creed – an energy system that regrew itself with nothing but sunshine while devouring its own carbon dioxide wastes.

Governments looking for low-hanging renewable fruit seized on biomass and biofuels as a no-brainer, stuff that could be burned by the existing combustion-centered economy with no permanent greenhouse cost or guilt feelings. Corn ethanol and bio-diesel crop programs left over from the 1970s were ramped up, and the burning for heat and electricity of wood, crop residues and biogas was designated fully renewable and given a generous cut of feed-in-tariffs and portfolio standards.

Bioenergy, which had been on the wane for centuries in the developed world, thus reemerged on an industrial scale. But it didn’t take long for many greens to turn against the initiative. Such industrial-scale bioenergy takes a lot of land and biomass to produce a mere trickle of power. A 2010 study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, for example, noted that three proposed biomass power plants in the state of Massachusetts, with a combined capacity of 130 megawatts (just 2 percent of the state’s average electricity use) would burn 1.45 million tons of wood every year – 60 percent more than the 900,000 tons that could be sustainably harvested from Massachusetts forests.16


(BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013)

The converted coal boilers at the Drax biomass power plant in Britain will burn 7.5 million tons of wood pellets per year,17 more than Britain’s entire timber harvest and equivalent to annually clear-cutting 165 square miles of forest, to supply about 4 percent of Britain’s electricity.18 Biofuels proved similarly land-hungry, with the US corn ethanol program becoming proverbial for the disproportion between its huge inputs of farmland and subsidies and its meager outputs of energy. In 2011 the United States used 40 percent of its corn crop, grown on about 50,000 square miles, to manufacture ethanol that supplied just 10 percent of its auto fuel.19


(BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013)

If scaled up, environmentalists argued, such programs would do serious damage to the world’s forests and food supply. Indeed, a spike in world food prices in 2008 that started riots in developing countries was widely blamed on diversion of farm acreage to energy crops.20 Nor did the bioenergy system that actually existed fit the picture of populist empowerment and ecological restraint; instead, it was conquering vast new territories for industrial agribusiness and relying on tremendous inputs of fertilizer, irrigation, and pesticide. These unsettling realities sparked vitriolic attacks on bioenergy, with former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler denouncing it as “a crime against humanity” in the pages of The Guardian.

In 2008, studies called into question the carbon-neutrality of biomass as an energy source.21, 22 Burning a tree sends a pulse of stored carbon into the atmosphere, creating a “carbon debt” that is paid back when new growth reincorporates an equivalent amount; the “repayment” period may take anywhere from a few years to many decades depending on how fast the biomass regrows. But when terrain is permanently cleared of forest or wild grassland to grow energy crops – or to accommodate other farming displaced by energy crops – the carbon debt may exceed what was incurred by burning the original biomass, and may be further massively increased by greenhouse emissions from soils disturbed by these shifts. The resulting carbon debt may take centuries to pay off, according to many studies,23 and will only exacerbate climate change in the meantime.

Bioenergy’s defenders offered various reasons why the environmental impacts aren’t what they seem. Biomass energy generation could subsist on residues and scraps from logging operations, sawmills, and pulp factories that would otherwise be wasted; cutting down whole trees would not be necessary.24 In reality, scientists responded, forests and fields actually need their “waste” residues to maintain soil quality and provide habitat. Video documentation emerged showing whole trees journeying from clear-cut to chipper to boiler. Economists who said energy crops drive up food prices were countered by other economists who said oil price hikes were the culprit.25

Facing these disquieting realities, many greens have turned against bioenergy. A recent report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth anathematized biomass burning as Dirtier than Coal.26 Both organizations have called for stricter limitations on biodiesel and ethanol, which they blame for rising food prices and forest loss. Greenpeace wants a cap on fuel sourced from farmland,27 while Friends of the Earth favors the elimination of European biofuels targets;28 both call for an outright ban on biodiesel from palm oil, which they see as one of the worst drivers of tropical deforestation. Backing them up are more staid outfits like the Natural Resources Defense Council, which likewise rejected tree-burning as “dirty and destructive” and celebrated Senate initiatives to eliminate corn ethanol subsidies.

Meanwhile, public support has shifted away from bioenergy, with major biomass projects now facing a gauntlet of protests and lawsuits. Western governments have responded by capping some bioenergy subsidies and mandates and asking new projects to prove their emissions savings and meet standards of sustainability and habitat protection.29

But it would be a mistake to imagine that the battle against bioenergy is won. A huge expansion of biomass and biofuel projects is in the offing as a major component of renewable energy plans, an expansion that will likely pose the same thorny issues – on a much greater scale – of land use, agricultural displacement, and resource constraints. What’s more, much of the environmental community is signing on to it.

3.

Bioenergy refuses to die in part because it is critical for plugging the many feasibility holes in proposed renewable energy systems. Biofuels could serve as (notionally) carbon-neutral motor fuels until auto batteries become cheap and capacious enough to support electric cars operated on grid power. More fundamentally, biopower is needed to backstop the chaotic intermittency of the wind and solar generators on a renewable electricity grid. Biopower is “dispatchable,” available on demand precisely where and when it’s required. Just as a whale oil lamp provides light after sunset and a wood-fired steam engine propels a ship when there’s no wind in the sails, modern biopower is there when we need it.

The dismal statistics on the reliability of wind and solar show why. In Germany, for example, wind and solar generation frequently collapses for days on end during calm and cloudy spells. During the week of November 12 to 18 in 2012, for example, the combined output of all the wind turbines and solar panels in the country averaged just 4.8 percent of their nominal capacity.30 Even drastically redundant overbuild of capacity won’t bridge these “common-mode failures,” and electricity-storage schemes are expensive and probably unfeasible on the required scale. These considerations imply that a renewable grid will require enough dispatchable generating capacity to meet electricity demand on its own during long periods when wind and solar produce next to nothing. Hydro and geothermal generators fill this role well, but they are limited by geographical constraints. So biomass must step into the breach.

Reliability is why just about every renewables plan carves out a prominent share for biomass and biofuels. The German Energy Agency forecasts that Germany’s already substantial biomass-fired electricity generation will grow a further 19 percent by 2020.31 The Australian Energy Market Operator’s scenarios for a 100 percent renewable grid by 2050 envisions generating up to 18 percent of the country’s electricity from wood-burning, with biogas and sugarcane residue chipping in an additional 8 percent.32 In its Renewable Electricity Futures study, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory assumes 100 gigawatts of biomass-fired electric capacity on the grid by 2050, burning upwards of a billion tons of biomass each year to generate about 16 percent of the nation’s electricity.33 And these figures don’t count the increased use of biomass and biofuels for heating and transportation; US biofuels mandates (mainly bioethanol) will climb from 15 billion gallons in 2015 to 36 billion gallons per year in 2022.34

Despite misgivings about the present-day impacts of bioenergy, the Union of Concerned Scientists places biomass – Clean Power and Fuel, If Handled Right – at the heart of its own sustainable energy blueprint. It estimates that 680 million tons could be grown sustainably in the United States by 2030, enough to make 54 billion gallons of ethanol fuel or generate 19 percent of the US electricity supply.35

The contrast the environmental community draws between right and wrong bioenergy hinges on several distinctions between “first generation” biofuels – wood, corn ethanol and biodiesel from oil seeds – and the coming “second generation” of biomass from specialized energy crops and “cellulosic” ethanol.

Cellulosic processing extracts fermentable sugar from the tough cellulose of the whole plant, not just the starchy fruit and seed kernel; it could double per-acre ethanol yields. Sourcing ethanol and biomass from fast-growing grass and tree species could greatly improve the carbon balance sheet of bioenergy and avoid diverting edible crops to energy production, thus driving up food prices.

If we’re careful, second-gen thinking continues, we can glean woody biomass from industrial scraps and forest waste with plenty left behind for soil enrichment, rather than from whole trees or from fragile or significant ecosystems. What’s more, UCS contends, perennial grasses and other specialty energy crops “[require] only modest amounts of fertilizer and pesticide” and actually increase soil carbon; instead of displacing agriculture they have “a positive impact on the sustainability of food production.”36 NRDC’s Getting Biofuels Right concurs that we can forge ahead with bioenergy if we install a hedge of exacting sustainability standards that will prevent the old first-gen abuses.37

The second-gen model sounds a lot more like the ecological ideal of bioenergy: restrained and unobtrusive; generating abundance through the efficient cycling and reuse of waste; and sustaining itself on minimal inputs and positive feedbacks rather than negative depletions.

But when you read the fine print, Gen II biomass often looks a lot like Gen I, only more so. Take the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Billion-Ton Update38 on future biomass supplies, on which the UCS plan was based. BTU reckons America’s energy biomass potential at anywhere from 767 million to 1.3 billion tons per year by 2030,39 depending on how optimistically they forecast yield increases. It models an impeccably sustainable Gen II regime of biomass and cellulosic biofuel, centered on specialty energy crops – switchgrass is the star prospect – grown with little fertilizer and no irrigation on marginal lands, and supplemented by forest and crop residues gathered with a meticulous eye to maintaining soil and habitat.

But for all its fastidious eco-prudence, there’s no hiding the immense environmental impact of this biomass program. DOE estimates that it would take 98 square miles of switchgrass plantation growing at maximum yields – twice that many square miles at average yields – to produce 50 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, enough to fuel the American auto fleet for all of three hours a year.40

DOE’s most ambitious scenarios puts the energy crop footprint at 79 million acres41 – equivalent to a strip of land 124 miles wide and 1,000 miles long – to supply half of America’s transport fuel consumption or one third of its electricity.42 DOE characterizes that acreage as “marginal.”43 But since they aren’t making any more of it, energy crops are likely to displace millions of acres of food crops, pasture, and “conservation plantings” (aka wildlife habitat).44 The DOE’s concept of “energy crop” is an expansive one, for it subsumes even the forests by turning huge swaths of woodland into monocrop slash pine or poplar tree plantations optimized for rapid harvesting cycles.45 Whole trees will indeed be cut for Gen II biomass, by necessity and by design.

This is industrial agriculture on an awesome scale, and there’s no reason to think it will lack any of the features that greens detest. Like all agriculture – the very first human industry and always the most disruptive to the environment – it will regiment and standardize the land and suppress biodiversity. Industrial-scale inputs of fertilizer and irrigation will surely be needed to keep up yields – production of Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol has slumped in recent years, in part from soil exhaustion – and genetically modified biomass is being discussed to apoplectic green protest.46 Energy biomass cannot help but elbow aside both actual and potential food production in a world that may well need to put its pastures and marginal lands back under cultivation to nourish a soaring population. If much of our transportation fuel is grown rather than pumped, then fuel costs will march in lockstep with bad harvests and amplify food price shocks. And environmentalists’ assumption that the kind of sustainability strictures they have decried as toothless in the past will bite hard in the coming Gen II regime seems naïve.

So “good” Gen II bioenergy is shaping up as a reprise of “bad” Gen I bioenergy on steroids. It will entail a colossal arrogation of land and resources for disproportionately modest energy payoffs, and that profligacy could in turn precipitate hard land use tradeoffs that sacrifice pressing human needs along with allegedly useless “marginal” land uses and ecosystems. It’s everything environmentalists hate, yet environmentalists support it because it plays an indispensable role in the renewable energy project, and is perhaps the ultimate expression of the tacit renewable goal of transforming all of nature into an integrated industrial power plant.

4.

Writing for The Guardian last year, the Head of Climate Change for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds waxed poetic about the future of Gen II bioenergy:

We want to see a brave new world where every ounce of food waste and sewage goes into anaerobic digesters that produce green gas for our homes. Where local woodlands are brought back into management and the wood clearings are used to provide heating for schools and hospitals, and where steelworks are powered by combined heat and power stations using wood waste.

Environmentalists, in this way, ease their cognitive dissonance about bioenergy by imagining it as all the things that it patently is not – efficient, abundant, and populist. All the old 1970s schemes – barnyard biogas, methane from landfills and sewage plants, and cars run on used vegetable oil from restaurants – are back to capture the green imagination, along with new experiments aimed at distilling biofuels from coffee grounds and alligator fat. (Yes, the reptile leather sector will finally be made sustainable.) From the confluence of these microscopic trickles of repurposed waste and rediscovered potential will surge a new energy supply for a new society, one hearkening back to the chemurgist dream of closed-loop thrift and self-reliance.

The vision of a society subsisting off its own waste sounds ecological, but it is undeniably harsh. Like Huxley’s brave new world, it is remorselessly engineered around efficiency and utility, with any residue of unrationalized wildness strictly managed and marginalized. Implicit in the green total efficiency state is a general penury that’s fixated on the hoarding of scraps and sticks. Paradoxically, it also suggests that we continue to wallow in waste – that there will be plenty of logging to create slash, plenty of pig manure and leftovers to power an industrial society.

The counterpoint between extravagant waste and desperate shortage shouldn’t surprise us: it’s the central feature of the real ecosystems from which environmentalists misguidedly take their cue. In the cliché of wildlife documentaries, “nature wastes nothing” and thus achieves a sublime abundance.

In truth, nature wastes almost everything, from solar energy to seeds, and its default condition is therefore red-fanged competition for scarce resources. The resources of ecosystems are thus already spoken for; there are no lands that are not used by something for some purpose, no caches of unexploited energy piled up in the margins that we can tap without depriving other organisms, human and non-human, of their sustenance.

That’s why modern civilization has grown by going beyond the circle of life for resources that lie far outside ecological boundaries. When firewood and whale oil ran short we did not conserve and recycle them; instead we dug for coal and petroleum and gas, retrieving colossal reserves of energy that were wasted by ancient ecosystems and had fossilized beyond the reach of biology. When rising food production strained soil fertility, we did not hoard compost and guano; instead we invented the Haber process that fixed nitrogen fertilizer out of thin air, thus creating an artificial nitrogen cycle that now rivals the natural one in its importance for agriculture.

In each case, ingenuity and technology unlocked enormous resources that biological processes cannot access, thus transcending Malthusian constraints on growth while easing the demands we placed on wild ecosystems. That these advances eventually drew excesses and externalities in their wake has made greens wary of that kind of Promethean development. Better, they feel, to live within the limits ecology imposes on development – and to accept an ethos of restraint and humility as both more responsible and more spiritually connected to the world around us.

Unfortunately, the bioenergy project exposes that agenda as a mirage. Retreating to a nostalgic ecological paradigm powered by energy systems that the developed world abandoned long ago – and for good reason – will merely increase the pressure civilization places on the planet.

We’re well advised to instead continue with what has actually worked in the past – to seek new technologies that transcend ecological constraints. The renewables movement is attuned to that strategy – wind power, solar power, and geothermal power are all serious efforts to access energy reserves outside the biological sphere. Unfortunately, their intrinsic limitations prevent them from meeting society’s need for abundant dispatchable power. Nuclear power, a reservoir of low-carbon energy that’s stupendously larger than the planet’s stock of fossil fuels, with arguably the smallest environmental footprint of any energy source, can meet that need if society can see past the myths and anxieties shrouding it.

Low-carbon biomass-based motor fuels may play a transitional role, but we’d do better to focus on electrifying transportation. Grid power is the easiest energy system to decarbonize: France and Sweden have demonstrated how swiftly a grid can be decarbonized using a mix of nuclear and renewables (mostly hydroelectric dams). Or, with a superabundance of clean electricity from nuclear energy, we could extract methane- and ammonia-based motor fuel from carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the air, a method of fuel production that takes up virtually no land, with a carbon debt that’s pre-paid from the start.

Society can’t entirely sever itself from its roots in the environment, but neither should it organize itself as an elaboration of closed-loop ecology. To view ourselves as an organic part of an ecosystem, constrained to scrimping along on its resources as efficiently as possible, is to place too heavy a burden on ecosystems to sustain us. There is no way such a conception of civilization can satisfy the social imperative of economic growth and improved living standards and accommodate what green consciousness values most in nature – its otherness, its autonomy from utilitarian ends, and its purposeless effusions of beauty.

Environmentalists often talk of the “ecosystem services” the environment provides to society, but we must be equally mindful of the benefits that human technological genius can afford to ecosystems. Stewardship of the planet requires that we continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems, and ecosystems from us.

1. “Stromerzeugung 1990-2013,” AG Energiebilanzen, http://www.ag-energiebilanzen.de/index.php?article_id=29&fileName=20131220_brd_stromerzeugung1990-2013.pdf.

2. “The Fuel of the Future,” The Economist, April 4, 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/business/21575771-environmental-lunacy-europe-fuel-future

3. Staff, “The Price of Green Energy: Is Germany Killing the Environment to Save It,” Der Spiegel, March 12, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/german-renewable-energy-policy-takes-toll-on-nature-conservation-a-888094.html

4. “General Information: Biomass,” German Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building, and Nuclear Safety, http://bit.ly/1o2vEJ7.

5. “The Fuel of the Future.”

6. US Energy Information Administration, “Renewable Energy Production and Consumption By Source,” January 2014, http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec10_3.pdf.

7. Farm Chemurgic Council, Proceedings of the Dearborn Conference of Agriculture, Industry and Science, Dearborn, MI, May 7-8, 1935, http://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/data/774599272.

8. Ibid., 104-5.

9. Ibid., 57.

10. Ibid., 97.

11. Ibid., 41.

12. Ibid., 30.

13. Z. Guo, C. Sun, and D.L. Grebner, “Utilization of forest derived biomass for energy production in the USA: status, challenges, and public policies,” International Forestry Review 9, no. 3 (2007): 754, http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/for274new/pdfs/2011/handouts/forest%20biomass_untilization.pdf.

14. Bruce Johansen, “Farming for New Energy with Waste and Weeds,” Washington Post, August 28, 1977.

15. Malcolm W. Browne, “Plants and Organic Waste Offer Hopes of Filling U.S. Energy Gap,” New York Times, December 10, 1979.

16. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study: Report to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, June 2010. https://www.manomet.org/sites/default/files/publications_and_tools/Manomet_Biomass_Report_Full_June2010.pdf.

17. Melissa C. Lott, “Big Coal – Big Biomass at UK’s Drax Power Station,” Scientific American, September 6, 2013, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/2013/09/06/photo-credit-big-coal-big-biomass-at-the-u-k-s-drax-power-station/.

18. Roger Harrabin, “Biofuels: MPs to consider subsidies for power stations,” BBC, March 5, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21672840.

19. Charles Abbott, “US Drought Crop Damage Worsens, Ethanol Waiver Urged,” Reuters, August 10, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/10/drought-idUSL2E8JAFB920120810.

20. “The State of Food Insecurity in the World,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2009, http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0876e/i0876e00.htm.

21. Timothy Searchinger, et al. “Use of US Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions From Land-Use,” Science 319, no. 5867 (2008): 1238-1240, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/319/5867/1238

22. Joseph Fargione, et al. “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Debt,” Science 319, no. 5867 (2008): 1235-1238, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/319/5867/1235.abstract.

23. Ibid.

24. LeAndra Spicer, “Smoke and Mirrors: Wood Biomass and the Environment,” F2M Market Watch (blog), Forest 2 Market, May 31, 2013, http://www.forest2market.com/blog/smoke-and-mirrors-wood-biomass-and-the-environment.

25. Mackinnon Lawrence, “Despite Evidence, Food vs. Fuel Fight Continues,” Forbes, July 11, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/pikeresearch/2013/07/11/despite-evidence-food-vs-fuel-fight-continues/.

26. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth. Dirtier Than Coal? November 2012, http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/dirtier_than_coal.pdf.

27. Greenpeace UK, “EU biofuels proposal – Greenpeace responds,” news release, October 17, 2012, http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/media/press-releases/eu-biofuels-proposal-greenpeace-response-20121017.

28. “Biofuels,” Friends of the Earth, http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/biofuels.

29. Mackinnon Lawrence.

30. Bruno Burger, “Electricity production from solar and wind in Germany in 2012,” Fraunhofer ISE, pg. 132, http://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/news/news-2012/electricity-production-from-solar-and-wind-in-germany-in-2012. Total production from wind and solar during November 12-18, 2012 was 0.51 TWh, an average hourly power production of about 3 GW. Nominal wind and solar capacity was about 62 GW (pg. 3), so average power production that week was about 4.8 percent of nominal capacity.

31. “Integration der erneuerbren Energien in den deutsch-europaischen strommarkt,” Deutsch Energie-Agentur, August 15, 2012, pg. 157, http://www.dena.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Presse/Meldungen/2012/Endbericht_Integration_EE.pdf.

32. Australian Energy Market Operator, 100 Percent Renewables Study—Draft Modelling Outcomes, April 24, 2013, pg. 29-36, http://www.climatechange.gov.au/sites/climatechange/files/files/reducing-carbon/aemo/renewables-study-report-draft-20130424.pdf.

33. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “Renewable Electricity Futures Study: Executive Summary,” 2012, pg. 22-26, http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy13osti/52409-ES.pdf.

34. US Department of Energy, US Billion-Ton Update: Biomass Supply for a Bioenergy and Biproducts Industry, August 2011, http://www1.eere.energy.gov/bioenergy/pdfs/billion_ton_update.pdf.

35. Union of Concerned Scientists, Clean Power and Fuel – If Handled Right, September 2012, http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/clean_vehicles/Biomass-Resource-Assessment.pdf.

36. Ibid., 4.

37. Natural Resources Defense Council, Getting Biofuels Right: Eight Steps for Reaping Real Environmental Benefits from Biofuels, September 2007, https://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/right.pdf.

38. US Department of Energy, US Billion-Ton Update: Biomass Supply for a Bioenergy and Biproducts Industry, August 2011, http://www1.eere.energy.gov/bioenergy/pdfs/billion_ton_update.pdf.

39. Ibid., xxvi.

40. Ibid, 91.

41. Ibid., 137.

42. Ibid, 151.

43. Ibid, 21.

44. Ibid, 138-9.

45. Ibid, 114; 106-9.

46. Maureen Nandini Mitra, “Can GMO Trees Save Forests,” Salon, September 7, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/09/07/gm_trees_could_save_our_forests_or_alter_them_inexorably_partner/


Comments

  • It appears to me that a considerable amount of bio or synthetic fuel could be produced from biological waste including garbage, animal manure, slaughterhouse waste, crop waste, sewage, etc..

    By JRT256 on 2014 02 12

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    • Did you actually read the article? The point is that there’s not plenty of waste because most of it is spoken for.

      “Bioenergy’s defenders offered various reasons why the environmental impacts aren’t what they seem. Biomass energy generation could subsist on residues and scraps from logging operations, sawmills, and pulp factories that would otherwise be wasted; cutting down whole trees would not be necessary.24 In reality, scientists responded, forests and fields actually need their “waste” residues to maintain soil quality and provide habitat. Video documentation emerged showing whole trees journeying from clear-cut to chipper to boiler. Economists who said energy crops drive up food prices were countered by other economists who said oil price hikes were the culprit.”

      By J. Ackersly on 2014 02 13

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      • I suggested other sources of bio-waste which are not spoken for and which currently do go to waste.  I believe that these should be fully exploited before we consider using trees suitable for lumber for biomass fuel.  Growing small trees like pulpwood is another question.

        However, regarding this point which I did not address.  These wastes, if left in the forest will almost 100% rot leaving only a small amount of hummus to improve the soil which will be negligible compared to the amount contributed by the part of the trees (about 50% of the tree) which is below ground and is, therefore, not removed.

        By JRT256 on 2014 04 21

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  • Indeed. Two key questions are (1) how considerable is “considerable”,  and (2) how much energy will be consumed in the process.

    By Ed Leaver on 2014 02 12

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  • The envisioned destruction of pristine desert to be bulldozed into concrete pads for solar collectors is daunting.  Then, the water table will have to be drained daily to clean the surfaces.  Ed Abbey would have hated it.

    The amount of reforestation of the eastern United States is remarkable since marginal agricultural land was given up with the ability to mass produce crops on the plains.  Entire forests now biodiverse, on the eastern seaboard were tiny nonproductive farm parcels in the nineteenth century.

    The amount of land required for high density fossil fuel energy generation is orders of magnitude lower.

    By D Brockman on 2014 02 14

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  • Great article, and well-sourced. I agree with Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth on this one.

    I’m sure they would also be against new mega dams destroying river ecosystems and driving some species to extinction, like recently happened to the Chinese river dolphin.

    Neither is a big fan of corn ethanol or palm oil biodiesel.

    But they are also against nuclear energy.

    What does that leave?

    A recent mega-study by our own National Renewable Energy Lab has made it clear that wind and solar can’t do it alone. Are they unaware of that fact? What do they propose to fill the void?

    Read: The “We don’t need nuclear energy because renewables can do it all” argument

    http://biodiversivist.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-we-dont-need-nuclear-energy-because.html

     

    By Russ Finley on 2014 02 15

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    • Nuclear is obviously the way to go.

      Two associated issues: it would be nice to have newer generation reactors producing less waste and more efficient. Also, if we are talking about powering the entire world, there are going to be nonproliferation/arms issues that will arise.

      By Doug Brockman on 2014 02 15

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    • Heh. The NREL mega-study to which Mr. Finley refers is the epic Renewable]http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/”]Renewable Electricity Futures Study 2012[/url], frequently cited as conclusive proof that a renewable energy future really is possible. And as Mr. Finley has found, there is actually quite a bit of of useful information buried in those 800+ pages.

      However, the REF study’s authors are quite clear: <bf>“The scenarios were not constructed to find the optimal GHG mitigation or clean energy pathway e.g., to minimize carbons emissions or the cost of mitigating these emissions.”</bf> (Executive Summary pg xxi) Such emission admission is not without ramification: one being that if one merely replaces the coal in the study’s 2050 bau-baseline scenario with uranium, leaving all else the same, one gets greater emissions reduction at lower cost than the study’s low-demand 80% renewables scenario. (See here. ) Wind and solar proponents who believe low-penetration Levelized Cost of Intermittent Energy is meaningful as wind+solar penetration exceeds their intermittent capacity factor are engaged in marginal thinking. Intermittent technologies do have their place, but that place is not large enough by itself to solve the climate problem.

      By Ed Leaver on 2014 02 15

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  • In Guatemala hundreds of square miles of jungle have been cleared for plantations of palm oil trees.  That jungle is/was one of the most efficient systems on the planet for removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  The palm oil is sent to Houston for biofuel production.  Can we make such environmental mismanagement by fantasy a crime?

    By Kohl Haas on 2014 02 16

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  • Sadly ignores the fact that most biofuel from grain and oilseed has enormous volumes of high quality vegetable protein - land involved in the production of biofuel is not supplying just a single market. I’ll leave those who know more about the constitution of Europe’s managed forests to comment on the species constitution within, but chances are you will find those landscapes were planted with a limited range of highly productive species.

    By AgricPolicy on 2014 02 17

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  • Had to read this carefully to find what point this guy is trying to make - does he want to use less biofuels, or none, or something else? It’s not like we can afford to be picky. But I think it’s neoliberal ideology because he says “We’re well advised to instead continue with what has actually worked in the past – to seek new technologies that transcend ecological constraints.” He’s kidding himself. Can anyone suggest an example of humanity successfully and sustainably “transcending ecological constraints”???

    By Andrew Thorpe on 2014 02 17

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  • Excellent essay. It reminded me of John James Audubon’s journal note when he approached England by sailing ship from New Orleans on 20 July 1826:

    “Thursday, 20 July 1826. St. George’s Channel. I am approaching very fast the shores of England. Indeed Wales is abreast our ship….But what nakedness the country exhibits, with scarce a patch of timber to be seen. Our fine forests of pine, of oak, of heavy walnut trees, of magnificent magnolias, of hickory, or ash, or sugar trees, are represented here by a diminutive growth named furze. Come, come, no criticism—I have not seen the country….”

    And this scene was more than a century after the English began their conversion from wood to coal—precisely because they had used up their forests for biomass domestic and process heating.

    By Richard Rhodes on 2014 02 25

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  • Points well taken, and the implication that nuclear is needed more than ever is well-taken as well. I disagree, however, with Michael/Ted/Mark’s assertion in their intro that solar (like hydro and wind) requires large land footprints. That ignores the virtually nonexistent footprint of distributed solar. It’s not a coincidence that Solar City is one of the few (the only?) consistently successful solar companies. Their model supplies panels and batteries to homes, rather than trying to re-invent the (solar) wheel. Interestingly, Elon Musk, who co-founded Solar City, has a massive need for battery power to make Tesla Motors relevant—and therefore just announced his plans to build a lithium battery “gigafactory,” providing far more lithium ion batteries than ALL other worldwide manufacturers combined. (Presumably his next announcement will be that he has purchased Bolivia.)  It is believed that he intends to sell what Tesla does not use, for distributed solar energy storage (thus eliminating the ‘cloudy day problem’), presumably including not just home storage, but storage at the sites of his Supercharger stations. 
    To be sure, nuclear would still be needed. But forgoing deployment of (and research into) solar would be a big mistake.

    By Josh Trutt on 2014 02 25

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  • This is a wonderful article that pulls together some important themes.  It’s spot-on that it’s unrealistic to think that “waste” fuels can provide any meaningful proportion of our energy (and while the article doesn’t get into these details, it’s important to note that burning these fuels is extremely polluting, and still generates a carbon debt, as our work at the Partnership for Policy Integrity has demonstrated). 

    One oversight in this article, however, is that while it references the Manomet Study in Massachusetts, it doesn’t cite the chief finding of Manomet, the one that actually led to policy change in Massachusetts. Yes, Manomet concluded that producing a relatively small portion of power from biomass would require increased forest harvesting, but it is the greenhouse gas consequences of biomass power that really caught the state’s attention. Manomet determined that standalone biomass power plants produce a net increase in CO2 emissions that persists for decades, especially when fueled by trees that would otherwise continue growing and sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere.  This increase occurs even relative to net emissions from fossil fueled plants. Once the state digested those findings, they were amenable to policy change, and thus Massachusetts took low-efficiency biomass power out of the state’s renewable portfolio standard on the basis of its GHG emissions – not on the basis of how much wood the plants would require.  The carbon debt concept that Manomet popularized is similar to the carbon debt concept that the article discusses citing Fargione (2008) but the Fargione article is a different animal and comes to somewhat different conclusions than Manomet.  It would have been good for Manomet to have been cited here and the omission of what happened in Massachusetts as a driver for “conversion” of environmental groups on this bioenergy issue is a bit of an oversight.

    It’s also important to note that whatever the merits of the reliability/dispatchability argument, the article glosses over the central question about biopower, which is, should it be considered renewable energy at all? Renewable energy is basically operationally defined now as whatever technologies are receiving renewable energy subsidies, but if it were defined as those technologies that reduce CO2 emissions in a timeframe that’s meaningful to addressing climate change, wood-burning power plants wouldn’t be on the list.  Thus, just because biopower is currently incentivized doesn’t mean it is automatically the answer for filling in holes in the grid. If wind and solar are patchy, then fossil fuels are just as dispatchable, and arguably more reliable, than biomass power.  (We are not proponents of fossil fuels - but even less are we proponents of granting renewable energy subsidies to technologies that are more polluting than fossil fuels.)

    By Mary Booth, Director, Partnership for Policy Integ on 2014 04 16

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    • Mary, it’s not about choosing one energy source over the other - we are going to need them all. Your conjecture that biomass burning generates more CO2 than fossil fuels is astounding - please explain? Re “biomass power plants produce a net increase in CO2 emissions that persists for decades, especially when fueled by trees that would otherwise continue growing” - I suggest you simply plant more trees to be the next fuel crop.

      By Andrew Thorpe on 2014 04 20

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      • Andrew,
        It’s a simple fact of physics that wood-burning power plants emit significantly more CO2 per megawatt-hour than fossil-fueled plants – about 150% the emissions of coal plants and 300 – 400% the emissions of natural gas plants.  How or whether that CO2 is offset, or netted out, is speculative.  We just published a review of 88 air permits for biomass plants proposed in the last few years and not a single one requires emissions to be offset.  In fact, almost no one is planting trees to fuel biomass power plants. Instead, the huge majority of plants proposed today will be fueled with wood from existing forests, creating a carbon debt that persists for decades. Massachusetts took standalone biomass electric plants out of the state’s RPS for this reason, and the Vermont Public Service Board just denied a certificate of public good for a wood-burning plant because it would increase GHG emissions and this isn’t compatible with the state’s goals to reduce emissions. There is lots of material on these developments and other issues related to biomass energy at our website, http://www.pfpi.net

        Mary Booth, Director, Partnership for Policy Integrity

        By Mary Booth, Director, Partnership for Policy Integ on 2014 04 20

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        • Mary, the CO2 from fossils fuel plants has been in the ground for 200 million years and hence is an addition to the current CO2 balance. It will have a half life of 20,000 years in the atmosphere. The in-plant conversion efficiency is not of benefit to the CO2 balance. The CO2 from biomass plants was in the air until a few decades ago and will be re-sequestered in a similar timeframe, because the plant economics will be predicated on a sustainable fuel source.  For you to suggest that this is “speculative” is disingenuous.

          By Andrew Thorpe on 2014 04 20

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          • Andrew,
            The atmosphere doesn’t care about the age of the CO2 molecules – it’s all equally effective in warming the climate. We think it’s disengenous for bioenergy companies to claim that biomass power is “carbon neutral”  and to claim that the conditions for resequestration of carbon are met – ie that forests are allowed to regrow fully (a process that takes decades) before being cut again.  Even when regrowth is complete, there is still a carbon debt because of the foregone sequestration that would have been occurring (and sequestering fossil fuel carbon) had the forests not been harvested for bioenergy.  Especially where native hardwood forests are being cut for energy wood, this to all practical purposes represents a permanent transfer of forest carbon to the atmosphere.

            Read what the NYT editorial just today says, that Avoiding the fate of extreme climate warming

            “will require a reduction of between 40 percent and 70 percent in greenhouse gases by midcentury, which means embarking on a revolution in the way we produce and consume energy. That’s daunting enough, but here’s the key finding: The world has only about 15 years left in which to begin to bend the emissions curve downward. Otherwise, the costs of last-minute fixes will be overwhelming.”

            It’s a simple outcome of mathematics that generating electricity by burning wood actually increases CO2 flux, by increasing emissions above fossil fuels, while simultaneously reducing the forest carbon sink.  This pulse of CO2 to the atmosphere from bioenergy persists for decades, far longer than the 15 years the editorial states that we have to reduce emissions. Why would we want to increase emissions, in the name of reducing them? 

            Mary Booth, Director, Partnership for Policy Integrity

            By Mary Booth, Director, Partnership for Policy Integ on 2014 04 21

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  • BREAKTHROUGH Institute, please, give us a break!
    The limits of bioenergy are clear to the green movement.
    The agribusiness lobbies are running on this, and I hope we will be able to stop them. This is not greens’ fault.
    Bioenergy is not required to compensate variability of wind and solar.
    On this topic, please refer to the work of Mark Jacobson, Stanford.
    And please, stop with these damn lies about the “huge” footprint of solar and wind.
    When a proper lifecycle assessment is performed solar has a similar land use of coal, but considerably more benign.
    Wind appears larger, but when you factor in the multiple uses of land among the turbines, the final result is that is one of the most preferable energy source available to mankind, even on the land use criterion.
    And please, stop promoting nuclear technologies that are not available in the near term. We need to act now, and fast. We can still spend R&D money in Gen IV, but you should have finally understood that Gen III is not going anywhere. On this, I refer to the debate that they are having in France.
    Please, inform yourself better (nevertheless, your post is rather enjoyable).

     

    By Luigi Moccia on 2014 04 20

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    • Luigi:
      That the French are debating nuclear power does not mean it isn’t going anywhere, albeit there are those who fervently hope so. Flamanville 3 is well under construction, and France’s future nuclear production may depend on how the Flamanville 3 EPR plays out.  Please consider some numbers. From WNA’s profile:

      Total (French) generating capacity (end 2011) is 126 GWe, including 25 GWe hydro, 28 GWe fossil fuel, 6.6 GWe wind and 2.2 GWe solar PV. Peak demand is about 100 GWe. In 2012 gross production was 425 billion kWh from nuclear, 62.5 from hydro, 22.5 from coal, 20.5 from natural gas, 19.5 from solar and wind, and 7.5 from biofuels & waste, of total 561 billion kWh.

      425 TWh is a lot of essentially carbon-free (its already constructed, emissions from uranium mining are very low per kwh generated.) juice to replace with anything else, and France has no intention of so doing:

      License renewal and uprates:
      In July 2010 EdF said that it was assessing the prospect of 60-year lifetimes for all its existing reactors. This would involve replacement of all steam generators (3 in each 900 MWe reactor, 4 in each 1300 MWe unit) and other refurbishment, costing EUR 400-600 million per unit to take them beyond 40 years. EdF has replaced the steam generators at 22 of its 900 MWe units and is currently replacing those at two units per year, and plans to increase this to three units in 2016. In 2011 it ordered 44 steam generators for 11 of the 1300 MWe units, for EUR 1.5 billion, and will proceed also with the other nine.

      Building new nuclear capacity:
      In August 2005 EdF announced that it planned to replace its 58 reactors with EPR units from 2020, at the rate of about one 1650 MWe unit per year. It would require 40 of these to reach present capacity. This will be confirmed about 2015 on the basis of experience with the initial EPR unit at Flamanville – use of other designs such as Westinghouse’s AP1000 or GE’s ESBWR is possible. EdF’s development strategy selected the nuclear replacement option on the basis of nuclear’s “economic performance, for the stability of its costs and out of respect for environmental constraints.”

      Energy policy and technologies — all technologies — are a matter of continual public education and debate, in which Breakthrough Institute is vigorously engaged. You yourself might better serve this process by supplying a citation (or two) to supportyour assertsions. For example, you contend “Bioenergy is not required to compensate variability of wind and solar,” an assertion that is highly context dependent. Upon what (specifically) is it based? If not Bioenergy, then what? The comprehensive Renewable Electricity Futures study cited by Russ Finley above tallies a U.S. 2050 final (sub-optimal, as new nuclear is excluded) generation mix comprising a full 15% Bioenergy, 9% coal, and 3% natural gas. What else is there that can keep the lights on?  Where is it located? How much is avialable? At what economic and environmental cost?

      Real estate is not the only measure of environmental footprint: in addition to ghg emissions there are also such things as steel, concrete, and in the case of intermittent renewables, the costs and impact of whatever other technologies are employed to make the grid reliable. On a Mwh basis, onshore wind takes about four times the concrete and six times the steel as nuclear (Emission Cuts Realities — Electricity Generation table 5, and that does not include the natural gas and/or hydro infrastructure and environmental impact required to maintain reliability.

      Speaking of hydro, the tables at CO2 Benchmarks paint a clear picture of just how valuable the reslource is — where you can get it. They also illustrate the magnitude of the CO2 problem: are you sure you want to forgo nuclear? Remember, although careful planning is definitely required, this is not an either-or proposition.

       

      By Ed Leaver on 2014 04 20

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