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Biofuels backlash?

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biomass3The United Kingdom’s Environment Agency has given a somewhat grudging endorsement of biofuels in a new report that asks this question in its title, Biomass – carbon sink or carbon sinner?

It seems an overly clunky and cutesy title for a government agency, but that aside, the report highlights how biomass energy “could play a key role in delivering our greenhouse gas emission targets but only if action is taken to ensure it is genuinely low carbon.”

Parsing that sentence could drive one crazy: “Could play a key role?” and what does “genuinely low carbon” mean?

Somewhat better is this quote about the report on the agency website: “Using biomass to generate electricity and heat can deliver very large greenhouse gas emission savings compared with using gas or coal but only if the fuel is produced in an environmentally sustainable way and used efficiently.

“Best practice can deliver up to 98 percent less emissions than using coal but worst practice can result in more greenhouse gas emissions overall than using gas. The report estimates that greenhouse gas emissions of over three million tons of carbon dioxide per year could be saved by 2020 if good practice is followed.”

The agency urges the government to ensure that all power generators publicly report GHG emissions from producing, transporting ands using biomass fuels and “be ready to set minimum standards if required.”

GHG emissions from energy generated using biomass “are generally, but not always, lower than those from fossil fuels,” the report says. How it is produced has a major impact on emissions.

Overall the best performing biomass schemes in terms of greenhouse gas emissions are those that deliver combined heat and power rather than just electricity, which is the current trend, the report continues. “They use wastes or energy crops that have not been transported too far. The worst performing schemes are those where energy crops are grown on what was previously grassland using a lot of nitrogen fertilizers. They expend energy in processing the biomass, for example into fuel pellets, and the fuel is transported thousands of miles and burned to generate electricity only.”

Biomass heat and power is currently the largest source of renewable energy in the UK but it accounts for only 2.3 percent of the UK’s electricity generation and 1 percent of the country’s heat needs.

“It can be a low carbon renewable energy source because it is either based on wastes which would otherwise go to landfill or on energy crops and forestry that, after being harvested, continue to grow and absorb the carbon emitted when they are burned.”

The UK government’s renewable energy strategy does plan for huge growth in energy generation from biomass so that by 2020 it provides about 30 percent of renewable electricity and heat towards the UK’s overall target of 15 percent renewable energy.

“We want to ensure that the sector’s growth is environmentally sustainable and that the mistakes made with biofuels are avoided, where unsustainable growth has had to be curbed,” says Tony Grayling, the agency’s Head of Climate Change and Sustainable Development. “Biomass operators have a responsibility to ensure that biomass comes from sustainable sources, and is used efficiently to deliver the greatest greenhouse gas savings and the most renewable energy.”

Read the 12-page report here.

More backlash: There was this provocative assertion on the UK-based PeakOil news & message board: Biofuels ‘Like Pouring Vodka Into Beer.’

Huh? Is that bad or good? The short item sees that as a bad thing apparently, considering the opening line: “Biofuels could produce twice the carbon emissions of fossil fuels they replace, environmentalists have claimed.”

Talking about the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, the item says Friends of the Earth have said rules introduced a year ago requiring a percentage of UK transport fuels to be “green” could have created an extra 1.3 million tons of CO2.

Considering the source of this one, is it possible that FOE were taken out of context a teensy bit?

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Written by William DiBenedetto

15 April, 2009 at 9:28 am

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