The Trouble with Bio-Fuels

I was going to post (again) about the Bio-fuel environmental catastrophe and how the EU and particularly Energiewende supporters are promoting it. But Biofuels Reform has beaten me to it.

The short animation below says it all. (h/t to @Thor at twitter for the tip off)

If you thought the Biomass scam was bad (see This Post) then make sure you sit down or stand well clear of breakable objects before you press the play button.

If you want to know some more about the utter environmental carnage taking place in Indonesia with Biofuels and burning Peat forests try this post of mine Fiddling While Sumatra Burns and read links to some of the peer reviewed papers .

Then there is this older post CO2 and Indonesian Peat Fires that gives a comparison of the biofuels scam to favorite Green "enemies" such as air travel.

The Trouble with Biomass

Biomass is the term used for burning vegetation (mainly cropped trees) for the production of electrical energy and heat. Although not exactly the poster boy of Renewable energy, Biomass is actually the largest contributor to renewable energy generation worldwide.

Here is the energy share from Germany for 2014. ( from

Notice that the largest contributor to Germany's renewable energy mix comes from biomass.

In the UK it is no different. Even old coal plant like DRAX is turning to burning imported wood pellets from Virginia to replace coal because it is “Green” (and also attracts massive government subsidy)

But how “Green” is Biomass? How much CO2 (and other pollutants) does it mitigate?

How much does it reduce pollution from the dominant , ugly and disgracefully growing German addiction to Coal? In the UK - how much does it actually reduce CO2 (and pollution) output from DRAX?

An alarming report from the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) calls the whole Biomass methodology into question ( See Here ) This is explored further by this article (plus references on the CO2 Science Website in this Article Here

First lets look at the model that biomass implements. Biomass is a mostly a euphemism for burning wood.

The idea is that a forest plantation is cut down and burnt to generate power and/or heat. Of course this generates CO2 and pollutants, but if the forest is re-planted then it should, over a number of years lock down the CO2 as the forest grows.

Then when the forest reaches a certain maturity and so stops absorbing CO2, it can be cut down again and the whole cycle repeats. Do this over a sufficiently large forested area and you end up with a CO2 neutral energy generation.


Unfortunately the main underlying foundations of this model look increasingly wrong with disastrous consequences.

The trouble with the Biomass model is two-fold.

First it assumes that a forest stops being a net absorber of CO2 when it reaches maturity.

In fact a mature forest continues to lock down CO2 in leaf litter (that turns to peat) Dead standing and fallen trees take very many years to decay as they are naturally replaced. In fact the CO2 lock down from a mature forest is significantly more than that from a mere 20 year old plantation that has ironically been deemed mature enough to be cropped for energy production.

Secondly: The whole forest maturity thing is just plain wrong.

The Biomass concept of a mature forest or plantation is dictated by an illusionary time scale. It has nothing to do with the reality of Carbon lock down. The twenty year maturity figure on which the cropping cycle is typically based is out by a factor of five (at least)

The net result from these two problems is that relatively little carbon gets sequestered down by newly planted forest. Meanwhile thousands of Hectares of mature forest is destroyed for a momentary gain.

Renewable Energy may be fashionable. But its Biomass bedrock is in fact little better than Amazonian Slash and Burn.

So how bad is it really?

From the above RSPB report, generating energy from biomass is considerably worse than even burning even Lignite.

The cyclic burning of 20 year old Conifers generates 180% CO2 of burning hard coal or about 172% CO2 of burning lignite (not shown on graph) 

It is difficult to express how awful this is.

The RSPB report indicates that if you want Biomass CO2 equality with coal you need to give the conifers plantations around a 100 year lifespan. So essentially just to stand still on emissions you need to increases the area of mono-culture forest by a factor of five.

This is terrible.

I must admit, cynical as I am of renewable energy, I never-ever thought biomass could ever be as bad as this.

Biomass has been revealed as a terrible counter-productive catastrophe driven by fashion and pseudo-science. It is making the situation worse not better.

From these figures we can estimate that Biomass (KWh for KWh) produces about 4 times the CO2 of fracked gas - the current Bette Noir of the Greens. Even if you adopted a 100 year cropping cycle Biomass would produce twice as much CO2 as gas.

Nuclear (the ultimate monster of Green nightmares) is at the very least an order of magnitude less polluting than biomass (yes – read that again)

In fact (and I NEVER thought I would say this!) Germany and UK would be more environmentally friendly, produce less CO2 and less other pollutants by burning coal rather than biomass.

Prove me wrong.

But more importantly prove these guys wrong - if you can.

Energy Storage: The Trouble with Power to Gas

There is a fundamental law of Physics called the Law of Conservation of Energy.

It's a real bitch.

Basically it demands that whatever the system you use, you can never get more energy out of it than you put in. So many beautiful dreams have come to naught - just because of this one damn law.

Even so there should be an adjunct to the law of conservation of energy. Something more like a serious health warning really.

Something like:

"Whenever you change from one form of energy to another - you will get screwed."

And I mean really screwed.

If on your last foreign holiday you thought changing currency was robbery then believe me, that was as nothing compared to the losses when changing energy form.

Truly, energy can neither be created or destroyed. But Oh Boy can it get "mislaid" dispersed or changed into unwanted useless forms whenever you try to convert one form into another.

You always (and I mean ALWAYS) end up with less than you started with. Mostly you end up with significantly less.

How good a system is at converting energy is its energy efficiency. It can never-ever be more than 100%.

90% is mind bogglingly good.

An old 19th century steam engine by comparison is about 10% efficient - on a good day.

By burning fossil fuels and liberating their stored chemical energy as heat and then changing that heat (from burning coal or gas) into electricity - you will lose about 50% of the energy as waste heat up the chimney. Still, we do it because electricity is far more useful to us than a lump of coal or a pocket of trapped gas.

Now, what would be the best way to store the energy in (say) gas for a rainy day?

Would it be by just not burning it until needed? Or would be by converting it to electriciy (50% loss) and then post generation converting it back to something else? (say another 50% loss)

I hope it is obvious that by doing a "gas->electricity->something else" you will get royally screwed. In this example you would end up with 25% of what you started with.

You are far, far better off not burning the gas until needed.

Wind turbines and solar PV do not have the luxury of having their energy pre-stored like coal, gas or nuclear. If there is excess generation by wind or solar they either waste the available energy by not converting it or they have to convert it to electricity and then convert it again to some other storeable energy form.

So, with wind (or solar) you have no option but to bear the pain and go with:

"wind->electricity->something else".

One of the much hyped "something elses" for wind/solar is called Power to Gas (Wikipedia article Here).

Twitter is alive with excited windies who see Power to Gas as the the "Great Breakthough" - The mythical silver bullet that will slay the demon problem of energy storage for wind/solar.

To be fair, Power to Gas is technically clever. It takes any excess electricity from wind/solar and via some clever chemistry uses it to generate flammable gas - either hydrogen or methane. This can then be stored and used at some later date either for heat or electricity generation..

The trouble with Power to Gas is is not the cleverness of the technology. The trouble is that damn law of physics about energy conservation. Especially the health warning attached to it.

Turning electricity to potential chemical energy (gas) is at best 75% efficient but more realistically it is around 60%. Then turning that gas back to electricity again reduces the overall efficiency to around 40% at best or more realistically about 30%. In other words we lose about two thirds of the energy - Of course the missing 2/3rds is not destroyed. It is simply just dissipated and lost to the system.

Remember this proposed technique is there to bale-out an already massively subsidized generator. Even if you totally ignore the actual cost of plant and plant operation the price of the re-generated electricity would have to be three times that of the source price just to stay level.

In reality though the price of Power to Gas has been estimated at anything from £500-1000 MWh. Or from 10 to 20 times as expensive as current gas/coal/nuclear generation.

A whole order of magnitude more expensive. Breathtaking!

Power to Gas is a nice idea. It may even have some practical niche applications. But storing excess energy from wind and solar? Dream on.

And all because of that damn law about the Conservation of Energy.