The EU’s Biggest Renewable Energy Source

Puzzle. The European Union has a goal of producing 20% of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Right now, which source of renewable energy does the EU use most?

1) wind
2) solar
3) hydropower
4) tides
5) geothermal
6) trash
7) wood
8) bureaucrats in hamster wheels
9) trolls

Think about it a bit before reading further!

The Economist writes:

Which source of renewable energy is most important to the European Union? Solar power, perhaps? (Europe has three-quarters of the world’s total installed capacity of solar photovoltaic energy.) Or wind? (Germany trebled its wind-power capacity in the past decade.) The answer is neither. By far the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.

In its various forms, from sticks to pellets to sawdust, wood (or to use its fashionable name, biomass) accounts for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff.

I haven’t yet found confirmation of this on the EU’s own websites, but this page:

• Eurostat, Renewable energy statistics.

says that in 2010, 67.6% of primary renewable energy production in the EU came from “biomass and waste”. This is at least compatible with The Economist‘s claims. Hydropower accounted for 18.9%, wind for 7.7%, geothermal for 3.5% and solar for just 2.2%.

It seems that because wood counts as renewable energy in the EU, and there are big incentives to increase the use of renewable energy, demand for wood is booming. According to the Economist, imports of wood pellets into the EU rose by 50% in 2010 alone. They say that thanks to Chinese as well as EU demand, global trade in these pellets could rise five- or sixfold from 10-12 million tonnes a year now to 60 million tonnes by 2020.

Wood from tree farms may be approximately carbon-neutral, but turning it into pellets takes energy… and importing wood pellets takes more. The EU may be making a mistake here.

Or maybe not.

Either way, it’s interesting that we always hear about the rising use of wind and solar in the EU, but not about wood.

Can you find more statistics or well-informed discussions about wood as a renewable energy source?

Here’s the article:

Wood: the fuel of the future, The Economist, 6 April 2013.

If its facts are wrong, I’d like to know.


P.S. – This is the 400th post on this blog!

15 Responses to The EU’s Biggest Renewable Energy Source

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks for pointing that out! That’s exactly the sort of thing I worry about. I’ll quote a bunch:

      When you think about burning wood to heat your home, you might imagine a cozy fireplace, not a giant power plant. Unfortunately, utility companies in Europe are making massive investments to convert their power plants to burn wood—known as “biomass”—as a replacement for coal and other fossil fuels. This is despite the fact that recent research shows that burning whole trees in power plants actually increases carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels for many decades—anywhere from 35 to 100 years or more. It also emits higher levels of multiple air pollutants.

      The result of this new demand has been the explosive growth of wood pellet exports from North America, most of which originate in our Southern forests here in the United States, putting into peril some of the most valuable ecosystems in the world.

      At the leading edge of this new industry is Enviva, the South’s largest exporter of wood pellets. Enviva harvests trees from Southern forests, chips them in pellet mills and loads the pellets onto ships bound for Europe, where they are burned in utility-scale power plants to keep the lights on in Europe. Not exactly a cozy picture.

      New maps and a report published today by NRDC and Dogwood Alliance show what’s at stake for the forests surrounding Enviva’s Ahoskie facility—and the multitude of species that depend on them for their habitat. Using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) data layers to show the landscapes and species within the 75-mile radius from which the Ahoskie mill buys trees for wood pellet manufacturing, the results reveal how Enviva has some of the most biologically diverse and environmentally sensitive natural forests in the world in its crosshairs.

      Enviva’s Ahoskie mill alone produces roughly 400,000 tons of wood pellets per year for export to Europe as fuel for electricity. To feed the facility, Enviva sources wood from the Southeastern Mixed Forests and the Middle Atlantic Coastal Forests ecoregions, both of which have been designated by the World Wildlife Fund as Critical/Endangered because of their high biodiversity and the combination of threats they face, including habitat fragmentation and land conversion. Yet less than 1% of the forests in the Ahoskie facility’s sourcing region are protected from logging activities that would degrade native ecosystems.

      Natural forests within the Ahoskie mill’s sourcing area have already been reduced to just a small percentage of their original size, with large swaths converted to pine plantations. As the first map shows (click on images to enlarge) and the report details, the few remaining natural forests in this landscape are highly fragmented.

      The second map identifies locations of wetland hardwood forests surrounding the Ahoskie mill. As I discussed here, The Wall Street Journal documented how Enviva sources wood for its flagship pellet-manufacturing mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina from clearcut wetland forests in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal ecoregion, some with trees more than 100 years old.

  1. Lauri Kettunen says:

    A side comment on pellets; In my understanding, at least in Finland, pellets are made of the byproducts and wood waste of sawmills. This is to say, in any case sawmills have to do something with this material, and instead of throwing it away, say to landfills, it’s not a bad idea to compress it to pellets and use it as an energy source. But yes, long distance transportation of the pellets raises an issue of the carbon neutrality.

    • John Baez says:

      Yes, I’m afraid we need to be more specific than simply saying ‘wood is a renewable resource’. Wood waste from sawmills that process trees from sustainable tree farms may count as a renewable resource, but wood that comes from chopping down old forests is not. Cutting down old forests and destroying complex ecosystems to start tree farms is also not something we can keep doing in a sustainable way.

  2. Lauri Kettunen says:

    Yes, share this same view, and also believe this kind of accuracy and precision is important. Recently some major newspapers in Finland wrote that there is some controversy on whether wood is renewable energy or not.

    But since nothing was said on where and how the trees are got, the news created just confusion among many –here a lot of people own woods, and they are very much after the woods– who did not realise the argumentation did not hold for all trees and woods. There’s such a significant difference between “there exists” and “for all”.

  3. Jim Stuttard says:

    400+ congratulations for nearly 2 decades of brilliant blogs.
    Chasing some links over breakfast I came across this pretty full-scale assault by Scott Lloyd on these figures. He points out that this pellet production is about 1-2% of forestry and so not an armageddon. The models cited in the NC assessment actually report a net reduction of carbon emmissions after 35-50 years. This is obviously too late but it contradicts the inevitable carbon cost of biowood if I can call it that. I haven’t had time to read it critically but it’s interesting and shows some of the difficulties in assessment.

    • John Baez says:

      If you could make something like 30-40% of the EU’s current sustainable energy using wood pellets made by just 1-2% of what forestry produces, what does that say? Is sustainable energy production tiny, is Europe tiny, is forestry huge, or all of the above? I should carefully check some of the numbers here. Thanks.

  4. Jim Stuttard says:

    The paper on mineral disturbance is:

    Thomas Buchholz, Andrew J. Friedland, Claire E. Hornig, William S. Keeton, Giuliana Zanch, Jared Nunery Mineral soil carbon fluxes in forests and implications for carbon balance assessments”
    but it’s paywalled.

  5. nad says:

    Thanks for the blog post, John.

    It is in general not so easy to get a good overview about issues like this.

    In fact I was recently getting interested in this issue because there are currently plans for a replacement of the power plant which is in my vicinity and which moves to another place, which is also not so far away and people where concerned that it might be a biomass power plant, which might emit a lot of dust and so I checked.

    There is currently at least one power plant in Berlin which runs on biomass:

    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holzheizkraftwerk_Berlin-Neukölln/Gropiusstadt

    But the newly planned plant is actually a combined cycle plant. At least that’s what the website of the corresponding company says:

    http://www.vattenfall.de/de/klingenberg/leistungsdaten-des-geplanten-kraftwerks-klingenberg.htm.

    So it seems at least there is no overall trend in Europe to replace every plant by a wood plant.

    In principle it is of course an important question whether one should burn fossil fuels (here gas), i.e. very long term accumulated solar energy or very inefficient short term solar energy (meant here are the imported pellets, that is burning otherwise unusable waste seems rather sensible). Given its population density and northern location I guess it will be very hard to survive in Europe without any energy imports. Projects like Desertec are I think way better especially from a solar efficiency viewpoint than pellets, but there are of course political obstacles.

    That is, German company leaders (like Bosch and Siemens) have to juggle their stakeholders, even if this may appear (in my viewpoint) not very wise in a long term perspective. Furthermore Russia needs to sell fossil fuels, because its economy is rather dependent on that. The US economy by the way too. That is, a short look at this great chart displays, if it’s correct, how the superpowers US and Russia are blasting out their oil and gas fossil fuel reserves. Here you see also that from the European countries it is apart from Russia only Norway who has a considerable gas/oil reserve.

    On the other hand countries in northern Africa with a lot of sun are politically rather unstable and there seems not yet much awareness about green energies. Although there are of course initiatives like for example this gogreensyria initiative which seems to be rather new and which seems to be located in north-west Damascus.

  6. Berényi Péter says:

    Burning wood cleanly is much more difficult due to its complex chemical composition. Land usage footprint of wood fired power plants is also enormous compared to alternatives (because of low flux density of sunshine and inefficiency of photosynthesis). Therefore the whole idea is ridiculous.

    For Europe the only viable alternative to traditional fuels is to go nuclear as soon as practicable to the largest possible extent. However, old Plutonium factories, remnants of the Cold War have to be replaced by new designs with built in safety, passive cooling in case of emergency shutdown and full fuel efficiency, with no long half life isotopes left in waste.

    • John Baez says:

      I agree that Europe needs more nuclear power. Clearly lots of people in Europe don’t agree.

      • Berényi Péter says:

        That’s true, unfortunately. However, I am sure those people are misled.

        There is a huge difference between various nuclear options and this is not communicated properly. Advanced designs can’t possibly blow up like Chernobyl or melt down like Three Miles Island or Fukushima.

        Also, the vast majority of nuclear power plant designs currently in operation were chosen because of their ability to manufacture Plutonium in quantity, while neither fuel efficiency nor waste quality were considered. That might have made sense during the Cold War, when our current nuclear warhead stockpiles were built up (Plutonium is excellent for that purpose), but they are becoming obsolete fast even from a strictly military point of view, as targeting accuracy has improved by several orders of magnitude lately.

        No one needs that much Plutonium any more. However, if it is left in waste, those deposits are becoming Plutonium mines of the next scores of millennia, for longer than the entire written history of mankind so far. Future is obscure, but if historia magistra vitae est indeed, we can be sure those sites can only be guarded for so long with huge gaps in between, when anyone with any intent can access them freely. If short half life isotopes are already gone from waste, extracting Plutonium by simple chemical means is cheap and simple.

        That’s a legitimate concern indeed, especially for a European generation which has grown up under prolonged nuclear threat, for Cold War military doctrines of both sides included scenarios where most of Europe gets utterly destroyed by mid range weapons while the superpowers are spared from an intercontinental exchange. I myself can remember having bad dreams about this very realistic nightmare.

        It is possible to design fuel cycles where no long half life isotope is left in waste, severing the link between power generation and military applications. In that case no long term storage of waste is needed, radiation would fall back to environmental levels in several centuries, while stuff can’t be weaponized at any stage. The additional benefit is improved fuel efficiency (by some two orders of magnitude!) which makes this mode of power generation sustainable indefinitely, or at least for the rest of the solar system’s lifetime at acceptable cost with no prohibitively large volumes of active nuclear waste to be handled at any point in time.

        It is high time to restart abandoned research projects with as little secrecy as possible. Public trust can only be regained by open communication. Regulations also have to be made targeted to mitigate weapon proliferation concerns and promoting inherent safety while opening up a wide space for private enterprise within these bounds.

        Even furnaces of existing coal fired power plants could be replaced by safe nuclear modules.

        Land usage footprint of this solution is less than that of any alternative by far, which is the most important point in the long run, raw land surface area being one of the two inherently scarce resources we have, for which no technological advance makes expanded reproduction possible ever (the other one is span of human attention).

      • John Baez says:

        Because I disagree with you so often, I feel the need to say I agree with you here!

  7. John Baez wrote:

    Wood from tree farms may be approximately carbon-neutral, but turning it into pellets takes energy… and importing wood pellets takes more. The EU may be making a mistake here.

    Or maybe not.

    Als aready mentioned, pellets are mostly made from waste saw dust. Pelletizing it costs 4-6% of its energy content (Handbuch Bioenergie-Kleinanlagen, p.37). Pellets have several advantages: They have a much higher energy density than normal wood, they can be transported in tanks and blown through pipes, they don’t rot as easy as normal wood. And they can be produced from material other than wood, e.g. Miscanthus giganteus or farm waste.

    Berényi Péter commented:

    Burning wood cleanly is much more difficult due to its complex chemical composition. Land usage footprint of wood fired power plants is also enormous compared to alternatives (because of low flux density of sunshine and inefficiency of photosynthesis). Therefore the whole idea is ridiculous.

    Sorry, this comment is ridiculous:

    1) Burning wood cleanly is easy. E.g. I have a small wood gas lamp that gives a perfectly clean flame from pellets (start and ends produces smoke, however). When it burns you can have it inside instead of candles. Photos here.

    2) Burnin wood is not an idea, but practice since ever. Germany invented sustainable forestry a long time ago: Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645-1714), Heinrich Cotta (1763-1844). So German wood is an instantly CO2-neutral source of energy, no carbon debt for regrowing the burnt tree. 3) Not everyone needs/should burn wood.

    However, the end of growth is near:

    The results of the EUwood analysis [2010] show that, on a medium mobilisation scenario, the expected demand is likely to exceed the potential before 2020. Even if all measures for increased wood mobilisation are implemented, wood demand, from industry and to meet the renewable energy targets, can hardly be satisfied from domestic sources in 2020. This applies to Europe as a whole although the situation differs according to region and country. On the high mobilisation scenario, it is difficult, but not impossible in 2020 but not in 2030 to supply enough wood to satisfy the needs of the industry and to meet the targets for renewable energy on a sustainable basis.

    Some more important points:

    1) There are vast areas of dying forest in the U.S. and Canada due to bark beetle infestation. You can let this wood rot (and release CO2 and CH4 in vain) or you can burn this wood.

    2) Thou shalt not totally burn thy wood: Leave some charcoal and produce terra preta soil with it. This can be excellent soil, catalyzing more formation of soil organic carbon. Then you have a carbon negative source of energy. (Just in case anybody is interested in survival of our civilization or even our species.)

  8. nad says:

    I wrote:

    meant here are the imported pellets, that is burning otherwise unusable waste seems rather sensible)

    and

    Projects like Desertec are I think way better especially from a solar efficiency viewpoint than pellets, but there are of course political obstacles.

    Florifulgurator wrote:

    Als aready mentioned, pellets are mostly made from waste saw dust. Pelletizing it costs 4-6% of its energy content (Handbuch Bioenergie-Kleinanlagen, p.37). They have a much higher energy density than normal wood, they can be transported in tanks and blown through pipes, they don’t rot as easy as normal wood.

    It would actually be interesting what percentage of produced wood pellets are actually from waste. I fear that the percentage might eventually meanwhile be smaller than “most”.
    Moreover I wrote “I think”, that is the above is a guess and I have not made any calculations. But sure it would be interesting to get a definite answer. I might be wrong. That is what exactly is the energy balance including transport and investment of machinery (solar cells and cables vs pellet press, vans and ships, shipping fuel etc.) Do you have any numbers?

    I want to add that apart from political obstacles there are of course also economical obstacles (for me these two are so interconnected that I sometimes forget to list them seperately) .
    Like for example volatile exchange rates may pose an obstacle.

    This should by the way also challenge certain views about “trading schemes” in the electricity sector (we had this before), moreover it displays what a breakdown of the Euro could imply and who might be interested in that.

    Peter wrote

    It is possible to design fuel cycles where no long half life isotope is left in waste, severing the link between power generation and military applications. In that case no long term storage of waste is needed, radiation would fall back to environmental levels in several centuries, while stuff can’t be weaponized at any stage.

    Plutonium waste is already used in MOX fuels. I would like to get a reference to your assertion “It is possible to design fuel cycles where no long half life isotope is left in waste”. I was actually searching for more information on that. In particular I would like to know what means “long” in this context?

    As far as I know there are sofar no closed fuel cycles that is currently there is always waste and this waste is currently still rather big and dangerous. Moreover it seems that alone for economical reasons it may make no sense to install closed cycles. That is Thorium and Uranium 238 are more or less abundant and you can breed new fuel without recycling. If producing nuclear waste doesn’t cost much then recycling within a more costly closed fuel cycle won’t most probably not happen. On the contrary by using breeders it will be rather probable that the Plutonium market will grow.

    Apart from that the handling of nuclear waste is of course not really easy and without dangers and of course the waste products may still be used for weapons.

    World nuclear – a rather pronuclear organization – writes here:

    In practical terms, there are two different kinds of plutonium to be considered: reactor-grade and weapons-grade. The first is recovered as a by-product of typical used fuel from a nuclear reactor, after the fuel has been irradiated (‘burned’) for about three years. The second is made specially for the military purpose, and is recovered from uranium fuel that has been irradiated for only 2-3 months in a plutonium production reactor. The two kinds differ in their isotopic composition but must both be regarded as a potential proliferation risk, and managed accordingly.

You can use HTML in your comments. You can also use LaTeX, like this: $latex E = m c^2 $. The word 'latex' comes right after the first dollar sign, with a space after it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,853 other followers