August 12, 2007
Biomass Energy Requires Too Much Land Area

Over at The Oil Drum Professor Cutler Cleveland has an essay "Energy Transitions Past and Future that is well worth the time to read. One of the points he makes is about biomass energy and the amount of land needed for biomass to displace oil:

The low energy and power density of most renewable alternatives collides with a second global environmental imperative: human use of the Earth's plant life for food, fiber, wood and fuelwood. Satellite measurements have been used to calculate the annual net primary production (NPP)—the net amount of solar energy converted to plant organic matter through photosynthesis—on land, and then combined with models to estimate the annual percentage of NPP humans consume (Figure 12). Humans in sparsely populated areas, like the Amazon, consume a very small percentage of locally generated NPP. Large urban areas consume 300 times more than the local area produced. North Americans use almost 24 percent of the region's NPP. On a global scale, humans annually require 20 percent of global NPP.

Human appropriation of NPP, apart from leaving less for other species to use, alters the composition of the atmosphere, levels of biodiversity, energy flows within food webs, and the provision of important ecosystem services. There is strong evidence from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and other research that our use of NPP has seriously compromised many of the planet's basic ecosystem services. Replacing energy-dense liquid fuels from crude oil with less energy dense biomass fuels will require 1,000- to 10,000-fold increase in land area relative to the existing energy infrastructure, and thus place additional significant pressure on the planet's life support systems.

Note that the current human use of global NPP is only going to go up as populations expand and more affluent populations use more land for plant crops, livestock, and also for biomass energy and wood for structures.

The already extensive harnessing of biomass to produce useful products for humans strikes me as a strong argument against biomass energy. The only compelling argument for biomass is the ability to produce liquid fuels from biomass suitable for use in vehicles. But we can develop ways to use more electricity in transportation including better batteries and methods to make synthetic liquid fuels.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 August 12 11:44 PM  Energy Biomass

OneEyedMan said at August 13, 2007 9:35 AM:

What about using products derived from hydroculture? Like using those dead regions in the oceans that the feed with iron to make algae to process into biodiesel. Would that be better or worse than the above?

Randall Parker said at August 13, 2007 1:41 PM:


The open ocean areas: I've thought the same thing. Someone responded to me once when I brought this up and linked to pages about how to do this. Might have been Nick or Brian Wang. You might try googling my site to see if you can find the exchange in the comments of some post.

The problem is material costs for partially enclosing an area. You want to salt an area of the ocean with iron (and other minerals?) and then get a plankton bloom that begins a food chain. Then harvest whatever level of the food chain you want to use. This is probably a better idea for growing fish than producing biomass energy. Though with materials advances in nanotech maybe we'll be able to make cheap enough nets or sorta massive tarps to close of a huge ocean area (miles in diameter) and do it.

James Bowery said at August 14, 2007 3:47 PM:

Start with the 0-Prize:

Then graduate to something like the Brief Proforma for a Solar Updraft Tower Algae Biosphere:

which reduces the ecological footprint of industrial civilization by about 1,000.

Then the ocean deserts are a natural.

This, of course, assumes that demand for blue fin tuna doesn't leapfrog the prior pathway to oceanic cultivation:

Wire said at August 14, 2007 9:39 PM:

Though with materials advances in nanotech maybe we'll be able to make cheap enough nets or sorta massive tarps to close of a huge ocean area and do it.

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