iPoint Blog

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



  • In my opinion it‘s a really difficult topic. The advantage to safe some of our fossil resources is directly in competition with the usable land surface. The food prices increase more and more because of the growing amount of maize and wheat cultivation. In Germany there are hardly other plants than rape, maize and wheat on the fields left. In other parts of the world they destroy parts of the rain forests to produce biomass. We could probably safe more CO2 emissions when leaving the forests.
    Furthermore, there are some concepts of energy forrests. It is a selection of fast growing trees that will be harvested occasionally. For me, that is a much better way to use biomass. The forests still contain a high biodiversity, the produced biomass can be used in local villages and does not force the transformation process in a biomass plant.
    Certainly, the next generation of biofuels are better in terms of the exploitation. But still there need to be conducted some research concerning these new influences. For example, a big part of not used plants can be used to feed the animals. It might just move the problems somewhere else.
    All in all the article is a good example of the actual problem. I think a far to big part of the biofuel topic is just about making money rather than really trying to do something for the environment or against the human produced emissions.

    • Hi Andreas! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      You are right! Making profits should not range at humanity’s top priority. However, this article focused on the market situation of biomass, hence the economy, hence profits. So thinking of making money is essential for evaluating a market situation.
      On the other hand, profits depend on the general perception of products. Trying to promote a product like biomass as carbon neutral, and finding out it is not, definitely modifies its market position.
      When you talk about the high biodiversity of fast growing energy forests, do you have a concrete example in mind? That would be interesting 🙂
      Thanks again

    • Hi Andreas,
      The Biofuels topic is also according to my observation the most critical one in the context of renewable energy’s. Just now in October 2011 a new report on Biofuels and indirect land-use change (ILUC) was published by the accountancy firm Ernst & Young. The study suggest to introduce a carbon credit, that meets specified ILUC mitigation criteria. The proposal in the report is to extend the mechanism already included in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which contains a 29gCO2eq/MJ carbon credit for biofuels produced from feedstocks grown on severely degraded or heavily contaminated land.

      The report and also further dicussion on the topic can be found at: http://www.euractiv.com/sites/all/euractiv/files/ernst%20and%20young%20study.pdf

      How to address ILUC properly in Product Carbon Footprinting is also discussed within the context of the development of the new standard ISO 14067. In the current draft version the standard refers to internationally agreed regulations and policy settings expected to come.

  • When talking about the biodiversity of energy forests (e.f) once has to differentiate between flora and fauna. The diversity of the flora is not really high because normally they plant just one type of tree. However the fauna of next standing forests can extend their area into the e.f.. The e.f are likely to be harvested in a cycle between 3 and 10 Years, so enough time for the animals to develop themselves. Normally there are no additional fertilizer and pesticides necessary.