Bio-energy makes its move

When we think about renewable energy most of us imagine solar panels and wind mills. Few of us think about trees and crops. But these latter items are getting mainstreamed as new sources of energy – burning them for electricity generation and converting them into liquid fuels  – with no small amount of controversy attached.

The premise of bioenergy in the context of climate change is rather simple. Trees and crops are biomass that is carbon neutral over its lifecycle. As they grow, they sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, and when they die, or are burned, they release that CO2 back. This closed loop is promising, at least relative to coal, oil and gas, sources of energy that release CO2 by burning the accumulation of dead biomass sequestered underground long ago (in the case of natural gas, or methane, it is a greenhouse gas in and of itself, though burning it releases hydrogen and CO2).

This is not news for many European countries who have been using biomass to create energy for decades. The EU is now driving a major industrial push towards bioenergy. It is aiming for 20% of its energy in 2020 to be from renewables, and about two-thirds of this will come from biomass. They have put in place a variety of tax credits, subsidies, investment aids and carbon taxes (these vary by country) to make the economics work out over cheaper coal. There is strong political support for such moves.

One problem for the EU is that others are getting into the game. BC exports large quantities of wood pellets for burning in Europe, meaning the EU’s “clean” generation is underwritten by transportation systems based on fossil fuels. BC is now making a push for bio-energy itself, so one rep from the pulp and paper industry at a session I attended last week argued that we will have failed if we are still exporting wood pellets five years from now rather than using them domestically.

The economics of bio-energy are heavily affected by the cost of the raw material itself and its transport to a generation plant. There is not enough biomass in Europe proper to meet its needs for raw material for its bio-energy plans – even if all food production in the EU went not as food but to energy generation.

Which raises the real issue with bio-energy: competition for uses. In the South, crops like sugarcane are highly effective in producing biomass crops, but that land may alternatively be used for food production. We are already seeing the effects of this competition in the rise in world food prices (droughts and speculation are also factors). In the North, the competition is from lumber and pulp production, the traditional industries, but the companies looking south to a devastated housing market are seeing dollar signs from the generation of electricity to sell into grids, and in the production of liquid fuels from that bio-mass – and perhaps some optimal combination of these that maximizes the use of energy embedded in the raw material.

So this is a convergence of the markets for food, fuel and fibre, with market prices increasing determined by energy content, according to an analyst from CIBC World Markets in his presentation. Land conflicts were anticipated, as agriculture, forestry, chemicals and electricity compete. There are still some major technology gaps holding back the full force of capitalist development here, but it is coming.

Environmentalists are concerned that an aggressive push for bio-energy could fuel a new “war in the woods” and express major concerns about harvesting practices (which now want to capture all the biomass not leaving the scruff on the forest floor) for biodiversity. This is acute in BC where we have a lot of dead wood around due to pine beetle, and there is a powerful argument to burn it now to capture energy benefits rather than have that CO2 slowly released over time. But given global warming it would seem foolish to wantonly send ever more CO2 into the atmosphere, whether trees are technically carbon neutral or not.

The good news is that is is all about control over land. There is a land rush going on worldwide to secure land for bio-energy dreams. And in Canada the vast majority of the land is owned by the Crown (First Nations could also make a case …). But policy frameworks are going to need to think about different aspects of security (food, energy, building materials) simultaneously.

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