(Photo credit cindy47452 via the Flickr Creative Commons license).
Books extolling the wonders of the coming hydrogen economy turned out to be works of fiction, as have several books about food-based biofuels. In fact, entire books have been written specifically to critique what is found in such books.
Are we about to jump on a new bandwagon now that the wheels have come off the first one?
I was motivated to do this post by an article by Thomas R. Blakeslee, over on Renewable Energy World, titled "Importing Solar Power with Biomass." You can find a free PDF of his book here, as well as a printed version.
Admittedly, if you are going to commandeer the planet's biosphere to make energy, you should seek the most efficient way to do it and burning biomass directly to make heat or even electricity will put far more of its available energy to use than trying to turn it into a liquid fuel. Biomass burning will also have less impact on food prices. However, it also has downsides that could easily make it worse than conventional fossil fuels when it scales up as many liquid biofuels have turned out to be.
I critique the article below:
"...Big trees should not be replaced by a succession of little trees.."
The above understatement was thrown out near the end of the essay. There have been no safeguards in place to guarantee that the biomass being shipped to Europe is not exacerbating GHG emissions.
From http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/326/5952/527 ($ub reqd):
"..Several recent studies estimate that this error, applied globally, would create strong incentives to clear land as carbon caps tighten. One study (2) estimated that a global CO2 target of 450 ppm under this accounting would cause bioenergy crops to expand to displace virtually all the world's natural forests and savannahs by 2065, releasing up to 37 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year (comparable to total human CO2 emissions today)..."
If it takes a decade for the carbon emitted by burned biomass to be removed from the atmosphere by biomass planted to replace it, the earth will see a decade of warming as a result of that burned biomass. Many trees take many decades to mature, meaning the earth would see many decades of warming from the emitted carbon before replacement seedlings reabsorb the carbon.
Any energy scheme, if done in a sustainable manner, that does not actually exacerbate GHG emissions, nitrogen eutrophication of bodies of water, biodiversity loss, or human suffering, is a good thing. But that's the problem isn't it? It is a probability game. What are the odds that any given scheme will not exacerbate most, if not all of those things?
It is not so much what scheme you pick, but how it is implemented, and the odds of implementing it per the above criteria. Some schemes have better odds of being done right but none of them are guaranteed to be done right.
Solar power has the highest probability of meeting those criteria.
I would hope that the author is familiar with this study in Nature:
Increases in industrial agriculture tend to exacerbate environmental degradation.
Burning biomass for heat or power can be up to 80 percent more efficient than gasification of that biomass followed by conversion into a liquid by a process like Fischer–Tropsch, or converting it in other ways to liquid with enzymes and acids. So, as far as efficiency of feedstock goes, it trounces converting biomass into a liquid fuel but can only address transportion issues via electrification of transport.
Luckily, transportation isn't our biggest issue when it comes to GHG. Power generation with coal is our biggest issue. Transport can best be met with huge gains in efficiency, as the Prius attests.
One should not conflate the terms biomass and biofuel. Readers quickly lose track of which one the author is talking about, leaving the author free to attach the positive attributes of one to all. Biomass is usually assumed to mean plants that are burned to produce heat and/or power. Biofuel is usually assumed to mean plants converted into a liquid fuel.
"..In tropical zones biomass grows year round.."
Tropical zones are also where the world's biodiversity is concentrated.
This is where the author segues from biomass into liquid biofuels.
It's true that jatropha isn't edible, so when farmers decide to plant it instead of food they really put themselves at risk. How do you force small farmers to plant what you want, where you want, when you want?
Read "How a Biofuel 'Miracle' Ruined Kenyan Farmers"
And although it is drought tolerant, it also produces next to nothing in a drought. It is much more productive on fertile land with plenty of water, which of course creates an incentive to maximize profit by using arable farmland.
"..Mission is careful to maintain a balance between food, fuel and forest so the development is a plus for the community.."
That's quite a claim. Is it a good thing that Mission purports to have that much control over the lives of subsistence farmers?
".. availability of inexpensive labor provides a clean replacement for diesel fuel ...Unlike factory development, biomass makes it possible for people to remain on their ancestral lands and make money doing clean, outdoor farm work.."
Ah, to live the care-free life of a subsistence farmer working in the warm sunshine and fresh air! Makes you wonder why humanity continues to flee to urban settings.*
Subsistence farming is an incredibly strenuous, risky, way to make a living.
"..They can press their own oil and sell it to the refinery.."
In theory, small cane farmers can press their own sugar and sell it to a refinery. Cutting cane is one of the most brutal jobs on the planet, with many cutters working in near slave conditions. The life span of modern cane workers is no higher than it was for slave cane workers:
"African ethanol producers accepting employment applications"
Note that most small cane farmers are eventually eclipsed by large farms and their economy of scale. The small farmers inevitably end up as poorly paid farm hands on the big farms. Jatropha will almost certainly follow the same pattern.
Where will Britain's largest biomass power plant get its biomass?
When completed, the plant in South Wales will burn wood chips from North America, generating enough electricity for half a million homes.
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