Doubt about EU's targets for biofuels
The charges are not new, but the report released yesterday drew a lot of attention, even achieving a mention on the nightly news. The researchers argue that solar and wind power should have priority over biomass.
More than 20 researchers from Leopoldina, Germany's National Academy of the Sciences, published a report yesterday reiterating a lot of the charges against biomass: it is hardly carbon-neutral, it conflicts with land for food production, and it is ineffective in comparison with wind power and solar power. Because the researchers are commenting on the EU's goals for bioenergy, they published the report in English (see page 31 of this PDF).
In terms of efficiency, the researchers point out that the photosynthesis process has an efficiency of less than one percent, compared to more than 15 percent for conventional multicrystalline photovoltaics, for instance. But then, of course, we have electricity, not a liquid fuel. Biomass is therefore not the most efficient way to produce renewable electricity, though biomass used as a source of heat from a power generator changes that equation slightly.
But what about fuels? The EU has a target of 10 percent renewable energy for transport by 2020. The researchers agree that biomass can only release the amount of carbon bound during growth, so biomass is theoretically carbon-neutral – but if we add in carbon inputs during the farming process and the biofuel production process, the carbon footprint of biomass worsens.
More damningly, the researchers argue that the amount of land needed for biofuel production to meet the needs of the EU would conflict too much with global food production. Proponents of biofuels point out that the EU already has quite a bit of land idled because of the current overproduction of food, so this land could easily be used for energy crops. Nonetheless, Germany already only meets half of its demand for biofuels from domestic production. The risk is that the EU will place too great of a burden on global arable land if it continues to increase its consumption of biofuels.
The researchers also doubt that futuristic algae farms will be a solution because they do not yet have a positive energy payback, meaning that more energy is put into the process than is produced in the end. The authors also investigate renewable hydrogen, though they point out that it will not be able to compete with the price of hydrogen from natural gas in the foreseeable future.
Overall, the study provides a good overview of the current debate, though it is not necessarily good news for the biomass sector. (Craig Morris)