A re-evaluation of biomass for electricity generation appears a certainty, and the evolution of sustainability criteria is likely to retard market growth, just as it did for biofuels, although their implementation will run into industry and political resistance.
However, the experience of biofuels and doubts over biomass-fired power generation raise a broader question. The world has a functioning energy system in the production of food.
The energy source for this system is the sun. Plants are the generation system and animals the end-users and recyclers.
Humans have required additional energy to raise their standard of living, whether it be using cow dung for heat and cooking fuel, or electricity to browse the internet.
To date, the vast bulk of this additional energy has been sourced from biomass, either fresh, or from the raid on the millennia old solar energy store that are fossil fuels. This raid has now become unsustainable.
The use of biomass today represents a subtraction from the food/energy system for alternative use, whether that biomass be a direct food stuff, such as palm oil, an intermediary, such as sugarcane, or inedible wood.
It represents a disturbance to the ecosystem that carbon accounting is showing to be much more complex than the simple ‘grow a tree, burn a tree’ philosophy suggests.
It may be no more of a disturbance than modern agriculture, which is necessary to raise and concentrate the productivity of the ecosystem in order to feed the world’s population.
But modern agriculture is itself emissions intensive and cannot function without additional energy inputs.
There is a clear negative trade-off between using biomass both for food energy and for electrical or locomotive energy. Using biomass for power generation and for biofuels puts additional and unpredictable demands on the ecosystem, when raising the productivity of that system already requires external energy inputs, not subtractions. Biomass is just early stage fossil fuel.
Other sources of energy are external to this cycle. Solar and wind power are not really forms of energy production at all – they are harvesting techniques.
They are not even commodities that can be owned. They represent a bigger drawdown of what might be termed ‘natural’ energy. Marine energy systems, including hydroelectricity, are also essentially harvesting techniques.
Geothermal energy taps an additional source of energy which is not sustained by the sun – the heat of the earth’s core — so it too is external to the hydrocarbon cycle.
And then there is the atom. Though there are many well-reasoned environmental and social concerns with nuclear fission technology as is currently constituted, the energy contained within the atom is a seemingly limitless source of additional energy that could sustain and raise the productivity of the hydrocarbon cycle. The latter is a cycle, or system, that doesn’t simply sustain life, it is life.