February 07, 2008
Studies Find Most Biomass Energy Increases Carbon Dioxide Emissions

The clearing of lands for biomass energy crops releases so much carbon dioxide that it takes many decades to cut the CO2 by as much as the land clearance originally released.

Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a figure of 93 years to get a payback for US grassland converted to corn ethanol.

But corn ethanol is far from the worst offender. Conversion of Indonesian peatlands to palm oil biodiesel takes 423 years to pay off.

The conversion of peatlands for palm oil plantations in Indonesia ran up the greatest carbon debt which would require 423 years to pay off. The production of soybeans in the Amazon, which would not "pay for itself" in renewable soy biodiesel for 319 years.

The shifting of US croplands into biomass energy causes lands in other parts of the world to shift into crop production. (this is called stating the obvious but with a scientific study to make the obvious harder to deny)

Searchinger's study focused on the global ripple effect of changing the use of farmland. U.S. farmers have been replacing soybean fields with cornfields to meet the rising demand for ethanol, lowering the world supply of soybeans and driving up their price.

As a result, farmers in Brazil are clearing rain forest to plant soybeans, he said.

His model estimated that devoting 12.8 million hectares of cornfields in the U.S. for ethanol production would bring 10.8 million hectares of additional land into cultivation throughout the world, including 2.8 million hectares in Brazil and 2.3 million hectares in China and India -- much of it forests and grasslands.

This demonstrates the foolishness of European Union rules to prevent import of biodiesel from high ecological value converted lands. Such bans just shift the biomass energy production onto other lands while shifting food production from those other lands onto the lands that otherwise would have produced biomass energy crops. The only way to prevent habitat destruction from biomass energy is to use little land for biomass energy crops.

People who want less ecological damage have a few alternatives staring at them: First, promote wider birth control use. Babies never conceived will never use land for biomass energy or for food to eat. Second, support energy sources that use small land footprints per amount of energy produced. Nuclear energy best fits the bill.

But if biofuels become large net producers of energy then they'll drastically increase in popularity regardless of their CO2 emissions effects.

A new analysis shows that the energy balance of biodiesel is a positive ratio of 3.5-to-1. For every unit of fossil energy needed to produce the fuel over its life cycle, the return is 3.5 units of energy, according to new research conducted at the University of Idaho in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The announcement of the increase—up from 3.2—was made today (6th February) at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in Orlando.

The yield of soybeans per acre keeps rising while energy inputs are not rising. So the ratio of energy out to energy in keeps rising.

The researchers found national soybean yield data from 1975 to 2006 shows that the yield has increased at the rate of 0.6 bushels per acre per year. Yet, the fertilizer application rate has essentially remained the same and the herbicide application rate has declined to one-fifth of its rate in 2000. Reduced herbicide applications have the added benefit of requiring less diesel for field spraying.

At the processing level, technology improvements at soybean crushing facilities led to 55 percent less energy needed than what was reported in the NREL study.

The best option I can see coming up for biomass energy is biodiesel algae. The algae approach might allow thousands of gallons of diesel to be produced per acre per year. But it is not clear when algae biodiesel will become cost effective. Maybe sooner than we think once oil production declines send oil prices into the stratosphere.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 February 07 10:14 PM  Energy Biomass

Ziprider said at February 8, 2008 2:44 AM:

Technology is passing the traditional environmental groups by. What you are seeing is a desperate flailing effort for groups such as Nature Conservancy to maintain their relevance.

Yep, huge Chinese mega-investments in SE Asian palm oil plantations are environmentally disastrous. Yep, Ben Nelson and Chuck Grassley are plundering US taxpayers to benefit their corn growing constituency.

Those are the worst offenders. Technology is bypassing them along with the fossil-environmentalists. They can't stand that.

Jim said at February 8, 2008 3:25 PM:

Yes, I started discussing this here back in June 2007.

How fun is that. :)


Jim said at June 16, 2007 10:02 PM:

All this is sort of wasteful. All that effort into designing and manufacturing more plastic...

All you need to do is put several hundred high altitude electric generators at 30,000 feet and we could generate most of the power needed to power the entire country cheaply.

Don't think so?
These few paragraphs may help sway your thinking on this:

Oh, then toss in some nice big algae ponds in some god forsaken back country, like the entire useless waste of space state of Wyoming with it's entire population of 500,000 people, and we have all the bio diesel we need to get around (just move 'em all to Idaho and "Algae" the place-- no one would ever notice...).

Just a little quote, "At current levels — algae can produce about 1,200 barrels of oil a day — a company would need 4 million acres of land to replace the 5 billion gallons of jet fuel used annually."

All this is doable at low cost within a decade, without further gazillions spent on "research," or ruining our economy by promoting ethanol alternatives... oh man, another of this decades biggest "joke's on you" scams.

What the heck huh?

OK, solar is cool for it's sheer geekiness, and it seems so green doesn't it. But it's still so incredibly wasteful in terms of production and waste over time... We are just moving one problem around to another (into land fills when all those solar cells are "upgraded," as well as the increased GHG's in order to produce all the extra plastics and exotic materials needed to fabricate those "solar roof tiles").

Can you say: "Outgassing"

See ya,


RDP said at February 8, 2008 8:07 PM:

CO2 variations show little correlation with our planet's climate on long, medium and even short time scales.

Engineer-Poet said at February 8, 2008 8:12 PM:

A couple of things on carbon-negative biofuels:

European-African bioenergy pact, which linked to this:

Bio-energy with carbon sequestration

If Khosla's gas-fermentation trick works and can be made portable, this leads to a possibility of going into any place where there is biomass (straw, logging slash, etc.) and turning it into charcoal.  The gas from the charcoal goes to the fermentation process, and the solids (containing roughly 2/3 of the carbon) are returned to the soil.  The charcoal improves the soil fertility, so the next growth on the land comes faster (and pulls more carbon, 2/3 of which can be sequestered if the cycle is repeated).

Joelsk said at February 8, 2008 8:48 PM:

Our company avoids the increased CO2 problem created by harvesting biomass. It's easy enough. We just use waste materials, like manures, crop wastes, wood waste, MSW and sewage sludges. We found a gasification technology vendor that can extract the energy from these wastes in commercial sized systems. We will use the low BTU syngas either directly in an internal combustion engine, indirectly in an external combustion engine or via a boiler to make electricity. The remaining ash residue has value, depending on the feedstock source. It may be used in place of manures as a soil amendment or, if there are traces of noxious chemicals or heavy metals, it can be vitrified and used for road repairs or as a concrete extender.


carl said at February 9, 2008 11:25 AM:

Joelsk - that's all great, but it doesn't scale to anything relevant.

BBM said at February 10, 2008 8:46 AM:


Is Khosla's gasification venture the same as Kergy/Range Fuels?

Engineer-Poet said at February 10, 2008 2:21 PM:

No idea.  Haven't studied the details.

Ziprider said at February 10, 2008 3:56 PM:

Biofuels, biomass, biochar, etc. are gonna pay off long before Venter's synthetic organisms are perfected. But once the micro-organisms----both synthetic and selected----can start performing that bio-magic of turning cellulose into longer chain hydrocarbons for aviation, marine, and automotive fuels, industry will slowly but surely turn from fossil fuels to biofuels.

These articles about corn ethanol are fighting last century's war. They're a waste of time.

Engineer-Poet said at February 10, 2008 7:46 PM:

IMHO, liquid fuels of any type are headed for second-fiddle status anyway.  Converting biomass to a liquid fuel of any kind means the captured carbon winds up back in the atmosphere.  We need to go carbon-negative, which means most energy used by vehicles will eventually be electric.  Stationary powerplants can get more vehicle-miles out of a GJ of any fuel than liquid fuels, and they can sequester the carbon too.

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