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April 2016

Bioenergy: The Wrong Alternative?

Bioenergy poses risks because of its carbon emissions, contributions to air pollution, and freshwater demand


The number one form of "renewable" energy in the United States is bioenergy, an energy source derived from burning trees, crops, manure, trash or waste for electricity and/or heat, or converting transportation fuels. According to the Energy Information Administration, 49.6 percent of renewable energy in the US in 2014 came from bioenergy; 18 percent, from wind; and 4.4 percent, from solar photovoltaics.

With 82 percent of US energy generated from fossil fuels, barring a reduction in energy consumption, policies facilitating the transition away from oil, gas and coal will likely continue to rely, in large part, on bioenergy.

Bioenergy's main selling point is that, unlike foreign oil, it's a locally sourced feedstock, which means more money stays in local economies. Industry and supporters say bioenergy is a clean, low-carbon, baseload source of energy that should be further expanded...

Commercial, industrial and residential biomass heating made up 62 percent of total bioenergy in the United States in 2014, with another 11 percent coming from biomass electricity (the remainder came from liquid biofuels)....

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More: The Biomass Monitor


  • Biomass Impacts in the Southeastern U.S.
  • Biofuel or Biofraud? The Vast Taxpayer Cost of Failed Cellulosic and Algal Biofuels
  • Lawmakers Oppose Maine Biomass Bailout, But Leave an Opening


air pollution: bioenergy; biomass; clean energy; climate; climate change; forests; logging; pellets; renewable energy; wood pellets

Biochar International - http://www.biochar-international.org/

Biofuel Watch (UK) - http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/

Pros and Cons of Biofuels/Biomass Energy


In order to assess the greenhouse gas implications of using wood for energy, you have to know four things:

• The life cycle of the wood (e.g., logging debris, whole trees, trees vulnerable to catastrophic events) in the absence of the biomass energy opportunity.

• The type of energy that will be generated (heat, electricity, combined heat and electricity), because different types have different efficiencies and thus different CO2 emissions profiles.

• The type of fossil fuel being displaced (coal, oil, or natural gas), because different fuels have different emissions profiles.

• The management of the forest — management can either slow or accelerate forest growth, and therefore recovery of carbon from the atmosphere.



Biomass to Energy Consumption

  • Rising costs of fossil fuels, energy security concerns, increased awareness of climate change, and potentially positive effects for economic development have led to considerable public attention to bioenergy. Bioenergy includes traditional bioenergy, biomass to produce electricity, light and heat and first and next generation liquid biofuels. The economics and the positive and negative social and environmental externalities differ widely, depending on source of biomass, type of conversion technology and local circumstances.
  • Primarily due to a lack of affordable alternatives, millions of people in developing countries depend on traditional bioenergy (e.g. wood fuels) for their cooking and heating needs, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This reliance on traditional bioenergy can pose considerable environmental, health, economic and social challenges. New efforts are needed to improve traditional bioenergy and accelerate the transition to more sustainable forms of energy.
  • First generation biofuels consist predominantly of bioethanol and biodiesel produced from agricultural crops (e.g. maize, sugar cane). Production has been growing fast in recent years, primarily due to biofuel support policies since they are cost competitive only under particularly favorable circumstances. The diversion of agricultural crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce our ability to alleviate hunger throughout the world. The negative social effects risk being exacerbated in cases where small-scale farmers are marginalized or displaced from their land.
  • From an environmental perspective, there is considerable variation, uncertainty and debate over the net energy balance and level of GHG emissions. In the long term, effects on food prices may be reduced, but environmental effects caused by land and water requirements of large-scale increases of first generation biofuels production are likely to persist and will need to be addressed.
  • Next generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol and biomass-to-liquids technologies allow conversion into biofuels of more abundant and cheaper feedstocks than first generation. This could reduce agricultural land requirements per unit of energy produced and improve lifecycle Greenhouse gas/GHG emissions, potentially mitigating the environmental pressures from first generation biofuels. However, next generation biofuels technologies are not yet commercially proven and environmental and social effects are still uncertain. For example, the use of feedstock and farm residues can compete with the need to maintain organic matter in sustainable agroecosystems.
  • Bioelectricity and bioheat are important forms of renewable energy that are usually more efficient and produce less GHG emissions than liquid biofuels and fossil fuels. Digesters, gasifiers and direct combustion devices can be successfully employed in certain settings, e.g., off-grid areas.
  • There is potential for expanding these applications and a need to reduce costs and improve operational reliability.
  • For all forms of bioenergy, decision makers should carefully weigh full social, environmental and economic costs against realistically achievable benefits and other sustainable energy options.

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