Economist: Environmental lunacy in Europe, Wood – The fuel of the future

In its various forms, from sticks to pellets to sawdust, wood (or to use its fashionable name, biomass) accounts for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption.

One has to ask “What the hell were they thinking?” Clearly, instead of thinking, the EU political elites were seduced by Greenpeace, FOE and similar activists. The EU defines “renewable” to include wood (biomass) but excludes nuclear power. This upside-down perspective has led Germany (via subsidies) to spend more than $350 per ton CO2 avoided by mass harvesting of forests around the globe.

The Economist has done a real service by detailing this bizarre EU policy.  I hope that we can rely upon “Herbert Stein’s Law,” which he expressed as “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. Or my shorthand “What can’t continue won’t”.

So we know the EU energy policies are not the future. But we don’t know how long this fantasy can persist. Merkel faces re-election in September – can we hope for a shift towards evidence-based energy policy?

Here’s a few excerpts from The Economist:

(…) By far the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.

In its various forms, from sticks to pellets to sawdust, wood (or to use its fashionable name, biomass) accounts for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff. After years in which European governments have boasted about their high-tech, low-carbon energy revolution, the main beneficiary seems to be the favoured fuel of pre-industrial societies.

(…) But if subsidising biomass energy were an efficient way to cut carbon emissions, perhaps this collateral damage might be written off as an unfortunate consequence of a policy that was beneficial overall. So is it efficient? No.

Wood produces carbon twice over: once in the power station, once in the supply chain. The process of making pellets out of wood involves grinding it up, turning it into a dough and putting it under pressure. That, plus the shipping, requires energy and produces carbon: 200kg of CO2 for the amount of wood needed to provide 1MWh of electricity.

This decreases the amount of carbon saved by switching to wood, thus increasing the price of the savings. Given the subsidy of £45 per MWh, says Mr Vetter, it costs £225 to save one tonne of CO2 by switching from gas to wood. And that assumes the rest of the process (in the power station) is carbon neutral. It probably isn’t.

(…) As another bit of the EU, the European Environment Agency, said in 2011, the assumption “that biomass combustion would be inherently carbon neutral…is not correct…as it ignores the fact that using land to produce plants for energy typically means that this land is not producing plants for other purposes, including carbon otherwise sequestered.”

Tim Searchinger of Princeton University calculates that if whole trees are used to produce energy, as they sometimes are, they increase carbon emissions compared with coal (the dirtiest fuel) by 79% over 20 years and 49% over 40 years; there is no carbon reduction until 100 years have passed, when the replacement trees have grown up. But as Tom Brookes of the European Climate Foundation points out, “we’re trying to cut carbon now; not in 100 years’ time.”

In short, the EU has created a subsidy which costs a packet, probably does not reduce carbon emissions, does not encourage new energy technologies—and is set to grow like a leylandii hedge.

Highly recommended!