Biofuel cost and nature

The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.

Many have argued that the problems associated with plant-based renewable energy are anomalous. Biomass may have its problems, the story goes, but a fully renewable energy system, with prominent roles for solar and wind power, will be good for the environment.

But in the first article from a forthcoming issue of Breakthrough Journal, Will Boisvert argues that bioenergy’s devastating impact on nature is typical of renewables, not exceptional. A world powered primarily by renewables, Boisvert writes, is unlikely to be environmentally friendly at all.

Consider that of the four renewable energy sources with an appreciable share of the market—large-scale hydroelectric dams, biomass, solar, and wind—the two that have scaled most significantly, hydro and biomass, are attracting intense opprobrium as the devastating consequences of their widespread deployment become impossible to ignore.

At scale, solar and wind would also cause considerable environmental damage. Both have large land footprints, and due to their intermittency they require backup, which usually comes from environmentally damaging power sources such as biomass or coal. As Germany has shifted from nuclear to solar and wind power, its brown coal consumption has risen to its highest level since 1990.

Indeed, part of what’s behind the continued support for biomass, despite its evident environmental impacts, is its ability to back up wind and solar. “In Germany, for example, wind and solar generation frequently collapses for days on end during calm and cloudy spells,” Boisvert notes. “So biomass must step into the breach. Reliability is why just about every renewables plan carves out a prominent share for biomass and biofuels.”

But beyond the practical need, bioenergy keeps popping up in green energy plans because it is, at bottom, the archetypal expression of ecology ideology. Dams, palm oil plantations, wind farms, and solar arrays all convert natural energy flows carried by water, sunlight, and wind into useful energy. The objective of plans to run the world primarily, or entirely, on renewable energy is to reintegrate human society into the natural energy flows of the planet.

The problem is that such efforts to harmonize society with nature tend to be bad for both. “For most of human history,” Boisvert notes, “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...”

Against the vision of renewables having a light footprint on the land, Boisvert notes, “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.”

Ultimately, if we want to save more nature we must leave more of it alone, not harness it to power a human population of 7 going on 9 billion. “Stewardship of the planet requires that we continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems,” Boisvert writes, “and ecosystems from us.”

Responses welcome.

Photo Credit: Biofuels and Costs to Nature/shutterstock