February 02, 2007
Palm Oil For Biomass Energy Wrecking Rainforests

The New York Times reports that Dutch and other European environmental organizations are shocked to find their support for biomass energy is wrecking rainforests and producing lots of carbon dioxide pollution.

AMSTERDAM, Jan. 25 — Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the early and rapid adoption of “sustainable energy,” achieved in part by coaxing electrical plants to use biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia.

Next time you hear confident policy recommendations from environmental groups just remember that some of them are still stupid enough to see biomass energy as a boon to the environment. The mind boggles. Politicians who see biomass as a way to simultaneously appeal to greenies and farmers are only to happy to provide tax subsidies for habitat destruction.

To be fair, not all environmentalists are lame on biomass. Lester Brown keeps warning that biomass has big downsides and he argues that biomass will raise the price of food for poor people. Making energy demand, food demand, and wildlife all compete for the same land means 2 out of 3 lose. The article reports on other environmental organizations that are skeptical about biomass energy.

Bye bye rain forests.

Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there.

Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Indonesia is pumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the name of sustainable energy.

Considering these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the world’s third-leading producer of carbon emissions that scientists believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China, according to a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands.

“It was shocking and totally smashed all the good reasons we initially went into palm oil,” said Alex Kaat, a spokesman for Wetlands, a conservation group.

They saw good reasons for tearing down rainforests. Good reasons. If only it didn't result in lots of CO2 release it was otherwise a good idea from the get go? Hello?

The amount of energy gotten per acre by using an acre for biomass is much less (by over an order of magnitude as compared to if the same acre contains solar panels). Plants have a low efficiency for converting sunlight to chemical energy. Therefore biomass uses a much bigger surface footprint than photovoltaics. Surface footprint size ought to be an important consideration when choosing energy sources. Minimize land use - unless you happen to dislike rain forests and other wildlife areas.

Scientists and engineers can further improve the conversion efficiency of photovoltaics. So when photovoltaics become cheap enough their land needs will be even lower as compared to biomass. Plus, in areas which have real winters when the fields do not grow crops photovoltaics can still capture many photons and use them to get electrons flowing. Even better, photovoltaics can get placed in deserts and other areas which have less biomass per acre. Therefore photovoltaics can cover less of areas that naturally have lots of plant matter.

Geothermal and nuclear power both have even lower land area footprints per amount of energy generated than photovoltaics. But some areas used by photovoltaics can be existing human-used surfaces such as the outer surfaces of houses and commercial buildings. Plus, areas with strong winds and lots of sunlight can have both wind towers and photovoltaics.

The appeal of biomass energy is that is it something that can be ramped up quickly. As long as it remains a fairly minor source of energy it won't cause too much damage. But encouraging biomass energy production in rainforest areas is nutty. Growing populations, industrialization, rising demand for wood for housing, rising demand for areas to build housing, and rising demand for food are already causing lots of habitat destruction. Why make it worse?

Holland is using palm oil to burn for electricity. How dumb. Electricity is the easiest energy to produce without emitting carbon dioxide. Build nuclear power plants. Drill for geothermal. Put up wind mills (though they have their limits). Or require full carbon sequestration of coal burned for electric power. To the extent that biomass does get used for energy the best use is as liquid fuels for transportation. Vehicles are the hardest things to make carbon neutral. If carbon dioxide emissions reduction is the goal then reserve liquid biomass for transportation and use nuclear, geothermal, wind, and eventually photovoltaics for electricity. For solid biomass (e.g. wood chips) use it in limited amounts to burn for building heat.

Rather than look for quick fixes to reduce fossil fuels in the short term we'd be better off if we shifted all the money getting wasted on biomass energy subsidy toward energy research into photovoltaics, battery, nuclear, geothermal and other non-fossil fuel energy technologies. That doesn't provide instant gratification. But it'll solve our energy problems in the medium to long term by providing us with energy sources that are both cleaner and cheaper than fossil fuels.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 February 02 09:56 PM  Energy Biomass

Wolf-Dog said at February 3, 2007 12:52 AM:

Directly burning ALL the biomass does not create carbon dioxide, since the growth of the biomass is carbon-neutral. It must be that palm oil is being extracted inefficiently. If the entire tree were burned in a furnace, the result would be efficient, and the ashes can be recycled as fertilizer, resulting in a closed loop.

But the problem is to choose the right kind of biomass. Recently there has been some intense and successful research in converting many kinds of cellulose based biomass into alcohol. Additionally, algae is very successful for biomass energy.

morpheus said at February 3, 2007 9:35 AM:

biofuels, ethanols, cows dump, wind, termal, etc, are just gay excuses, for those who dont understand

that for a clean eviroment, and stop global warming, wee need to go nuke fulk trotle, while can stop

any use of fosil fuels, and accelerate fussion reserch,. tahts the most practical way to solve this problem,

ofcourse they could also declasifie above top secret projects, for energy production, that they have for decades,

but o no bush friends must selll all oil they have first

Nick said at February 3, 2007 12:18 PM:

Randall, I agree with you post with one quibble: solid biomass is probably better used for central electrical production, with heat pumps (air or ground, depending on climate) for building heat. Solid biomass is cumbersome for decentralized burning. More importantly central burning is more efficient, and the use of heat pumps probably gives you 50% more end-use heat for the same input.

Randall Parker said at February 3, 2007 2:14 PM:


I keep forgetting heat pumps. I bet the answer would depend on time of year. Obviously, we do not need space heat in the summer. So then it makes more sense to generate electricity for air conditioning. But in the winter it is my impression that heat pumps only work over a limited temperature gradient. So if the gradient becomes too large the heat pumps become more expensive to operate. So we might to use waste to generate electric on hot and moderately cold days but burn it for space heat on very cold days.

Nick said at February 3, 2007 2:33 PM:

Randall, air-based heat pumps are mostly only good down to about zero F (below that the backup is resistance heating, which is of course expensive if used often). If temps will go below that reasonably often then the answer is ground-based. There is one company which is developing an air-based heatpump which can maintain efficiency well below zero F. That would be great, because air-based is pretty cheap.

Ground-based isn't limited by outside temps. They're the standard in Canada, and users love em. Plus, I'm told that even with ground-based that total cost of ownership is distinctly lower than furnaces.

Robert Schwartz said at February 3, 2007 8:51 PM:

There are downsides to every form of energy generation, but technological civilization based on energy generation is the best thing that ever happened to the suffering humanity. The environmental movement has had a tendency to romance the girl who lives far away (e.g. don't develop nuclear, wait for wind and solar). Every time an alternative form of energy generation becomes practical, they discover that it too has costs that make it undesirable. The impact of bio-ethanol on the price of food for the poor is not theoretical. It is here. It is past time to acknowledge that there are no silver bullets and that everything we do has both benefits and costs.

Randall Parker said at February 3, 2007 9:13 PM:

Robert Schwartz,

The people who want to end the fossil fuels era need to get a lot more serious. They need to wake up and acknowledge that they are proposing something that is hard to do. This rainforest palm oil debacle demonstrates a shallowness on the part of some of the environmentalists. There's no easy solution. We need a large assortment of technological advances we do not have yet.

The population of the world is going to go up by another 2 or 3 billion. The rainforests and other habitats are already plenty threatened by population growth without aiming energy demand at already endangered habitats. The environmentalists are a threat to the environment.

Tony said at February 8, 2007 12:16 AM:


I like the way you put 'The environmentalists are a threat to the environment.' I came across this site www.palmoiltruthfoundation.com that addresses this issue. Palm oil is still very good feedstock for biofuel.

REPLENDENT QUETZAL said at January 27, 2010 9:50 AM:

Silly pathetic enviromentalists how utterly foolish and stupid they must feel

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