Biomass Lagging Behind Prospering Wind and Solar Markets

The newest Country Attractiveness Index for Renewable Energy, conducted by Ernst & Young, rates China the most attractive country for investments in renewable energy (71 points), followed by the USA (67). As reports Business Green, “little has changed at the top of the rankings since the previous quarter.” Four times a year, analyzed countries obtain a score of up to 100 points for their national renewable energy markets and infrastructures. 65% of the total score is provided by the separate wind energy index, 18% by solar and 17% by biomass and other energies.

There has been little movement in the top half of the All Renewables Index, with China maintaining its position in first place. The Chinese government has signalled its continued support for offshore wind by announcing that it will hold tenders for 2GW of projects to reach its target of 5GW by 2015. However, investment is needed to improve grid reliability and transmission access for onshore wind projects in remote locations. Support for offshore wind has also been witnessed elsewhere, with France releasing its long -awaited tenders for 3GW of projects, and Germany launching a €5b program to provide incentives to this sector.

Not much of a news headline so far. However, reading the report carefully, you find an assessment worth knowing. In a guest column, climate change consultant Jonathan Johns explores the reasons behind the decline in biomass investments, resuming the technology’s problems in a general comparison:

Wind and solar both benefit from free natural resources obtained by way of land or roof lease (with relatively modest royalties) rather than complex feedstock contracts. They also pose fewer issues concerning sustainability than biomass.

He also comments on the widely discussed sustainability issues related to biomass:

Biomass can give rise to significant sustainability issues if it competes with food crops for land (an issue in common with the solar farm industry), or if energy crops lead to deforestation. It poses more of a carbon conundrum than free resource renewables and poses similar issues to first generation biofuels, renewables and poses similar issues to first generation biofuels, such as far eastern palm oil.

On the other hand, he sees a huge potential in future biomass technologies:

Very strong biofuels industries have emerged: with the production of ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil, wheat in the US and maize in Europe, and biodiesel from vegetable oils and animal fats. Biofuels for aviation are likely to become a large new market, as are second and third generation biofuels derived from cellulosic materials and algae, for example. The emerging market for direct injection of cleaned -up biogas into the grid (as occurs in Germany) provides further forms of resource competition, albeit that complementary technologies are used. (…)

In addition, pressure on landfill in many developed countries is creating new markets for biopower, particularly in the treatment of organic waste streams.

Personally, I think we need to consider the details carefully. Looking at biomass, we would do well to distinguish between a renewable, but industrial energy source on the one hand, and a very local, small-scale sustainable use of biomass on the other.

Article image by fRandi-Shooters


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