Problems with biomass energy and the ILUC

Sometimes we green energy lovers don’t like to admit that there are problems with biomass energy.  But, all though bio energy is still a very promising and worthwhile environmental investment, there are some issues that must be addressed if we are to guide our decisions based on evidence and not just hopeful thinking.

Sometimes we green energy lovers don’t like to admit that there are problems with biomass energy.  But, all though bio energy is still a very promising and worthwhile environmental investment, there are some issues that must be addressed if we are to guide our decisions based on evidence and not just hopeful thinking.

Let’s go over some of the larger issues, controversies, and solutions to the problems with biomass energy.

For starters, using biomass as a fuel produces air pollution in the form of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, NOx (nitrogen oxides), VOCs (volatile organic compounds), particulates and other pollutants, in some cases at levels above those from traditional fuel sources such as coal or natural gas.

Main Problems With Biomass Energy:

  • Black carbon – a pollutant created by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass – is possibly the second largest contributor to global warming.
  • Creates Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds
  • Can increase deforestation
  • Can contribute to Whole Tree Harvesting

Black carbon – a pollutant created by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass – is possibly the second largest contributor to global warming.

In 2009 a Swedish study of the giant brown haze that periodically covers large areas in South Asia determined that it had been principally produced by the problems with biomass energy burning and to a lesser extent by fossil-fuel burning.  Researchers measured a significant concentration of 14C, which is associated with recent plant life rather than with fossil fuels.

To add more problems for the biomass industry, forest-based biomass has recently come under fire from a number of environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, for the harmful impact it can have on forests and the climate.

Greenpeace recently released a report entitled "Fueling a BioMess" which outlines their concerns over the problems with biomass energy in regards to forest-based biomass. They contend that, because any part of the tree can be burned, the harvesting of trees for energy production encourages Whole-Tree Harvesting, which removes more nutrients and soil cover than regular harvesting, and can be harmful to the long-term health of the forest.

In some jurisdictions, forest biomass is increasingly consisting of elements essential to functioning forest ecosystems, including standing trees, naturally disturbed forests and remains of traditional logging operations that were previously left in the forest.

Environmental groups also cite recent scientific research which has found that it can take many decades for the carbon released by burning biomass to be recaptured by regrown trees, and even longer in low productivity areas

But that is not all. Logging operations may disturb forest soils and cause them to release stored carbon. In light of the pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term in order to mitigate the effects of climate change, a number of environmental groups are opposing the large-scale use of forest biomass for energy production.

The ILUC and the History of Problems with Biomass Energy

The indirect land use change impact, also known as ILUC, relates to the unintended problems with biomass energy due to the release of more carbon emissions. This is caused by the expansion of croplands for ethanol or biodiesal production.

Because natural lands, such as rainforests and grasslands, store carbon in their soil as plants grow each year, clearance of wilderness for new farms  increases greenhouse gas emissions. Due to this change in the carbon stock of the soil, indirect land use change has consequences in the GHG balance of a biofuel.

Others have argued that indirect land use change can produce other significant problems with biomass energy, such as social and environmental impacts. These impacts affect biodiversity, water quality, food prices and supply, land tenure, worker migration, and community and cultural stability.

A controversial paper published in February 2008 in Sciencexpress by a team led by Searchinger from Princeton University concluded that these problems with biomass energy offset the positive effects of both corn and cellulosic ethanol, and that Brazilian sugarcane performed better, but still resulted in a small carbon debt.

After the Searchinger team paper, estimation of carbon emissions from ILUC, together with the food vs. fuel debate, became one of the most contentious issues relating to the problems with biomass energy, and was debated in the popular media, scientific journals, op-eds, public letters from the scientific community, and the ethanol industry, both in America and Brazil.

This controversy intensified in April 2009 when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) set rules that included ILUC impacts to establish the California Low-Carbon Fuel Standard that was enacted in 2011.

In May 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a notice of proposed rulemaking for implementation of the 2007 modification of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The EPA’s proposed regulations also included ILUC, causing additional controversy among ethanol producers.

The UK Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation program requires the Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) to report problems with biomass energy production, including indirect land use change or changes to food and other commodity prices.

A July 2008 RFA study, known as the Gallager Review, found several risks and uncertainties, and that the "quantification of GHG emissions from indirect land-use change requires subjective assumptions and contains considerable uncertainty", and required further examination to properly incorporate indirect effects into calculation methodologies.

A similarly cautious approach was followed by the European Union. In December 2008 the European Parliament adopted more stringent sustainability criteria for biofuels and directed the European Commission to develop a methodology to factor in GHG emissions from indirect land use change.

The Controversy over Problems with Biomass Energy Continues

Before 2008, several full life cycle ("Well to Wheels" or WTW) studies had found that corn ethanol reduced transport-related greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2007 a University of California, Berkeley team led by Farrel evaluated six previous studies, concluding that corn ethanol reduced GHG emissions by only 13 percent.  However, 20 to 30 percent reduction for corn ethanol, and 85 percent for cellulosic ethanol, both figures estimated by Wang from Argonne National Laboratory, is more commonly cited.

Wang reviewed 22 studies concering problems with biomass energy that were conducted between 1979 and 2005, and ran simulations with Argonne's GREET model. These studies accounted for direct land use changes. Several studies of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol showed that sugarcane as feedstock reduces GHG by 86 to 90 percent given no significant land use change.

Estimates of carbon intensity depend on crop productivity, agricultural practices, power sources for ethanol distilleries and the energy efficiency of the distillery. None of these studies considered ILUC, due to estimation difficulties.

Preliminary estimates by Delucchi from the University of California, Davis, suggested that carbon released by new lands converted to agricultural use was a large percentage of life-cycle emissions.

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