No easy answers for biofuel/biomass sustainability problems

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The heavily-subsidised US corn ethanol targets have been roundly criticised in the past year for the fuel’s lifecycle GHG emissions. Several reports show them comparing poorly to fossil fuels, and use of corn ethanol is effectively restricted under new Californian fuel efficiency standards.

Meanwhile the European Union, which puts considerable amounts of money into meeting 2020 biofuel and biomass targets, is also continuing to weather heavy criticism of its sustainability criteria – or lack thereof – for the sources.

The Times claims to have viewed another report damning the sustainability of liquid biofuels being sourced by EU countries. A UK government study, it reports, found that meeting the country’s transport fuel goals, “will result in millions of acres of forest being logged or burnt down and converted to plantations.” Some commonly-used biofuel crops will fail the EU’s own standards, according to the report:

Under the standard, each litre of biofuel should reduce emissions by at least 35 per cent compared with burning a litre of fossil fuel. Yet the study shows that palm oil increases emissions by 31 per cent because of the carbon released when forest and grassland is turned into plantations.

The Times also reports that the EU has carried out its own research, but is refusing to publish the results, while a leaked EU memo suggests that changes to the rules affecting ‘indirect land use’ would threaten the entire biofuels industry.

Finding lower-carbon sources of liquid transport fuels is a tricky business; biofuels are still mostly stuck in first-generation technology of turning plant sugars into ethanol, which means a big need for land, and the risk of competing with food production.

Using biomass for electricity at least has some rivals (wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, to name a few) – but the EU is also planning to significantly boost biomass power generation; plans which are not faring much better from environemntal scrutiny.

Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds critcised a set of new EU reports into biomass sustainability for failing to introduce adequate sustainability rules for biomass feedstock – especially when it is imported from outside the EU.

As well as doing nothing to limit biodiversity impacts, the report also fails to address the issue of carbon emissions. Forests are major carbon stores and turning them into fuel will add to greenhouse gas emissions. There is no robust legislation for governments to properly account for this so these emissions are often completely ignored.  The report suggests relying on international processes to solve the problem but the rules to account for forest carbon emissions being discussed in the UN climate talks are going in the opposite direction.

In an impact summary released as part of the new biomass reports, the European Council describes its sustainability objectives thus:

The general policy objective is to guarantee a sustainable use of biomass for energy purposes. The specific objectives are to ensure that heat and power uses of biomass leads to (1) sustainable production, (2) high greenhouse (GHG) performance compared to fossil fuels and (3) efficient energy conversion of biomass into electricity and heating and cooling.

The operational objective is to establish sustainability requirements for solid and gaseous forms of biomass used in electricity and heating, as long as they are: – effective in dealing with problems of sustainable biomass use,
– cost-efficient in meeting the objectives and
– consistent with existing policies.

Perhaps that penultimate one – cost-efficient – is where the will to introduce stricter standards began to fail.

Importing material from far flung parts of the globe is fairly routine for biomass power generators. Burning waste to generate power sounds like a fairly straightforward proposition, but sourcing reliable supplies of feedstock is actually quite challenging, and sources are closely guarded by biomass generators.

Those plants have to act as reliable, ongoing source of power and the type of feedstock can’t be easily switched. It’s far more complicated than just sourcing supplies from some nearby farms – those supplies could be intermittent, for example, or contain material that could damage the plant.

FOE and RSPB say that EU efforts should instead focus on wind and solar power, but the intermittency of with those sources is at least as big a challenge as sourcing and verifying sustainable biomass feedstock.

Related links:

Mandating big biofuels targets is not enough (FT Energy Source)
Time to revisit corn ethanol policies (FT Energy Source)

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