Biomass: Energy of the Future or (Bio)Massive Waste of Space

Group 79

With greenhouse gas emissions at an all-time high and global non-renewable resources depleting rapidly, drastic reform is required in the way we produce our energy. Nuclear remains an unpopular option, wind and solar cannot be depended on for consistent generation, and battery storage technologies are decades away from large-scale feasibility. Biomass provides cheap, dependable, near carbon-neutral energy, and currently makes up 7.5% of the UK energy mix (https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/data-portal/electricity-generation-mix-quarter-and-fuel-source-gb). However, its use has proved controversial, with the student body of the University of Sheffield protesting its use in powering the institution. Why is this? And would it be ethical for the UK to use biomass as a direct replacement of fossil fuels in the future?

Meeting Emissions Reduction Targets

The Paris climate change agreement stated that by 2050 the UK is to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 80% relative to 1990 levels (https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CCC-2018-Progress-Report-to-Parliament.pdf). The target is ambitious and therefore every measure must be taken to reduce UK emissions. Current biomass technology produces near carbon-neutral energy, and so using it as a replacement for fossil fuels would significantly decrease carbon emissions. Therefore, approaching the issue from a Kantian viewpoint, if our duty is to encourage international cooperation in resolving a global issues, it follows that to effectively uphold the Agreement, biomass should become a significant contributor to the UK energy mix.

Carbon Negative Technology

Biomass is a proven yet still developing technology. Investment in this sector would not only go towards increasing the growth of biomass, but would also be channelled into innovation. Emerging technologies that provide cleaner, more efficient energy production have been researched and are beginning to be implemented (https://www.bioenergy-news.com/display_news/14395/200_million_biomass_plant_planned_in_uk/). Carbon capture is potentially the most exciting example, as this would make biomass the only known method of power generation with the potential to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The first carbon capture system in the UK was recently installed at Drax’s Yorkshire plant (https://www.drax.com/press_release/europes-first-bioenergy-carbon-capture-storage-pilot-now-underway/). Investing in biomass would stimulate progression and innovation, and allow the UK to fulfil its commitment to reduce its emissions and combat climate change. On a similar note, plants accommodating waste as a fuel reduce extremely harmful methane emissions from landfill sites. That amounts to about 4% of the UK’s greenhouse emissions (https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Waste-factsheet.pdf). Clearly the development of such practices is characterised by moral intent, as they directly reduce greenhouse gases, which aid humanity towards a healthier and more sustainable future, a core concept of Kantian philosophy.

Reduced Costs

Scaling our focus down to the everyday person, it becomes evident that a financial benefit would arise with increase of biomass plants. First off, biomass costs about ⅓ that of fossil fuels for equivalent outputs (https://energyinformative.org/biomass-energy-pros-and-cons/), reducing energy bills to consumers. Secondly, fueling the plants with biodegradable waste would alleviate the Landfill Tax (https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Waste-factsheet.pdf), an incentive imposed to local businesses by the EU Landfill Directive to eliminate methane emissions from waste, which has increased from £7.00 to 86.10/tonne in a decade (https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CCC-2018-Progress-Report-to-Parliament.pdf). Furthermore, coal power plants can be converted for biomass (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180821-the-giant-coal-plant-converting-to-green-energy), making it a more cost-effective investment compared to other clean energy technologies, relieving government spending and indirectly benefiting other government services, such as the NHS. Regarding the U.K citizens as stakeholders, the consequences of such investment are considered net positive, and thus deemed ethical, from a utilitarian standpoint.

Burning Biomass

Competition for Arable Land

If biomass were used as a large-scale energy source, the amount of land that would need to be devoted to growing the required fuel would be vast. It is believed that even using the most efficient plant-based fuel source, to meet the total energy requirements of the UK, the amount of area required to grow the fuel would be larger than the UK itself (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0W1ZZYIV8o). Fuel would therefore likely need to be imported from other countries. This could put the food supply of developing countries under greater duress, as farmers may be incentivised to grow biomass fuel for developed nations rather than food to support the local population if the former is more profitable (http://biofuel.org.uk/threat-to-food-supply.html). Food poverty would become more prevalent in both the short and long term should biomass be used as large scale energy source. Therefore, from a utilitarian perspective, such action should be considered unethical.

Carbon Debt

Land conversion is required to grow the raw material for biofuel. The preparation of this land releases CO2, creating a “carbon debt”. The scale of this carbon debt depends on the type of land being converted. If abandoned agricultural land is used, this would only create a small carbon debt. The reduction in carbon dioxide that would result in using biofuels over “dirtier” fuels would then “pay off” this debt over a short period of time. However, converting native forest and wild land to produce biofuel could result in a carbon debt that would take as long as 500 years to pay off (http://biofuel.org.uk/global-warming.html).Indeed, one of Britain’s chief climate experts calculated that carbon emissions would rise by more than 6% if wood burning becomes more prevalent in Europe’s power production (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/31/biomass-burning-misguided-say-climate-experts). According to Kantian ethology, the action of converting any native land in the full knowledge that it would increase atmospheric CO2 levels and in doing so cause harm to the global community could not, in good conscience, be supported.

Reduction in biodiversity Converting areas of natural land for fuel production would result in a loss in biodiversity. The harvesting of fuel supplied by the U.S. to UK biomass plants directly damages the natural habitat of dozens of endangered species (https://www.redpepper.org.uk/dont-believe-the-hype-biomass-is-an-environmental-disaster/). The benefits of maintaining a healthy and diverse ecosystem are manifold and extend beyond the issue of CO2 reduction. From a deontological perspective based on the universal principle of life preservation, knowingly taking action that would directly harm life and reduce biodiversity would therefore be categorically unethical.

Initial Decision

In conclusion, while it may be possible to replace the use of fossil fuels with biomass in individual countries such as the UK without doing net damage to the environment, attempting to do so on a global scale would do more harm than good.

33 thoughts on “Biomass: Energy of the Future or (Bio)Massive Waste of Space

  1. There is a clear need to reduce the global dependence on fossil fuels and move towards renewable power generation. Biomass initially looks a good option as it is inherently carbon neutral, however there are few benefits beyond this. The land area needed to grow the fuel needed for large scale energy production would be immense, wasting valuable space and would cause an irreversible reduction in biodiversity.

    I feel that solar power has far more potential to meet the global energy requirements for the future, especially with the advancements in battery technology. The advancements in battery technology can alleviate the current issues with solar power not being able to provide grid base loads.

    1. I agree with the greater potential of solar power. There is constant innovation and technology development for other sustainable alternatives, however we may have reached the maximum efficiency for biomass.

  2. There seems little doubt that Biomass is a more sustainable, cleaner, fuel compared to any of the current fossil fuels. Nuclear is a tricky comparison to make – people tend to side completely against it, citing previous disasters, or recognise it as a perfectly suitable alternative to renewable until we are able to increase our renewable capacity in the future.

    The question then becomes where you view biomass compared to other renewables, e.g wind or, less prevalent in the UK, solar. It may be very well cutting out biomass, and 7.5% of the UK’s energy mix, but that loss will have to be made up elsewhere. We would then have to devote land to wind or solar farms, or worse still increase our use of fossil fuels. If other renewables are able to replace the deficit with fewer moral disadvantages, then perhaps the conclusion against biomass is correct.

    However, in 2019 surely we should be looking to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels before turning against the likes of biomass.

  3. Interesting article on a very relevant topic. I am in agreement that it is our moral duty to move humanity to a more sustainable future, therefore implementing the use of biomass as a fuel source does seem a promising alternative to fossil fuels.

    It is unrealistic to imagine that biomass will eventually occupy 100% of the UK’s energy mix, especially due to the land requirements. Therefore to combat the moral disadvantages portrayed by this article, the use of biomass combined with other renewable energy sources could be the best way forward. Because of this, we should not completely disregard the use of biomass on the basis of the disadvantages it generates. At the end of the day, all energy sources do have their negatives and a compromise will always have to be taken.

    Another thought, regardless of whether you use biomass, wind or solar energy etc., large amounts of land will always have to be occupied (to varying extents). Therefore would it be of best interests to employ the method in which occupies the lesser amount of land for the same energy capacity?

    1. Good point that wind and solar also use land to varying degrees. Offshore wind farms are a good example of how to minimise the impact of this and is a great option for the UK.

  4. Though it is true that biomass is a far more sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, is it realistic to suggest that it could be a major contributor to the UK energy mix? This article highlights how much land would be required to meet 100% of demand with biomass so maybe it would be wise to accept that it should remain a ‘filler’ and that investment should go towards other renewable sources.

    Also, it should be noted that biomass is not necessarily as consistent as people believe. Yes it is true that wind power only works when it is windy, solar when it is sunny, etc. but just as with any other crop, a poor harvest could mean demand is not met and prices may fluctuate. And importing biomass is surely not aligning with the values of minimising fossil fuel usage…

  5. I have read that Denmark is already seeking to overhaul its energy infrastructure to become more dependant on biomass so I was very interested to read this article. I think it is possible for developed and agricultural nations such as the UK and Denmark to use biomass as a main source of energy fuel but for much of the rest of the World it is not feasible.

    Britain should therefore be looking to invest and innovate in technologies that could be used all over the World, especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia, as it is these places that will soon become the largest emitters of CO2 because of their growing populations and economies. Climate change is a global issue, and it therefore requires global solutions.

  6. Biomass, as this article frames it, is fraught with uncertainties. It treads the line between bringing benefit on a small and tentative scale, and running the risk of unleashing unsustainable carnage on land and populations. Ideally, it should only be employed as a back-up source of energy for cleaner technologies but the temptation of profit and short-term achievement of targets is a dangerous draw as the article points out. In my opinion, the beast of biomass isn’t worth our time or investment; instead we should focus our attentions on other technologies and energy sources rather than fanning the flames with banknotes and biofuel.

    1. Interesting that you feel biomass is not worth any investment at all. Even if kept as a backup source, investment is necessary to maintain the industry and innovate technology to extract as much power as possible.

  7. This article makes some good points about biomass. One point that stood out to me was the potential need to import fuel from countries with arable land. This suggests perpetuating poverty and food shortages in developing countries for the gain of developed nations. I agree with ‘collyflower in that Britain should be developing technologies which can be used globally to combat climate change. All nations should be in a position to reduce their carbon emissions as this is a global issue and not just the UK’s issue.

    1. Importing fuel from other countries is definitely a red flag. If countries switch to becoming prime producers of biofuels, they may become increasingly dependent on exports to thrive. What happens to them when solar and wind gets developed to the point where biomass crops are not needed?

  8. You raised some interesting points, though I wonder if they are sufficient to justify the continued predominant use of fossil fuels, given the issues inherent to their sustainability.

  9. Great read, very interesting. Seems like the availability of land (or lack thereof) is still a big issue, rendering a full switch to biomass energy impossible in the near term.
    I’ll be interested to see continued research on the topic given the current pressures from all sides to reduce the global reliance on fossil fuels.

  10. energy production must become more akin to the birth of athena than the punishments of prometheus., until this day we will be an uncivilised society doomed to fail

  11. Interesting article – although I am not convinced that biomass is the least costly clean energy source. A study by Vivid Economics (http://www.vivideconomics.com/publications/biomass-in-britain-a-dirty-costly-solution-to-coal-phase-out) found that in fact once the total economic cost of biomass is account for, both solar and wind are less costly. That aside, if the short term costs of biomass are less then perhaps it will an easier fuel with which to start replacing fossil fuels. Great article and an enjoyable read – thank you!

    1. Great article link! Interesting point that the long term costs of solar & wind may be less. Certainly there is a decision to be made about short vs long term gain

  12. What about the use of biomass that is a waste product from plants grown for food? The vast majority of crop plants are not 100% edible, and using this would reduce waste as well as being able to base future crops on plants that are good for both food and biomass fuel.

  13. Fossil fuels are quite clearly not sustainable for this world and a look towards renewable resources is the only real solution we have for this currently. However as has been mentioned, biomass on a global scale will actually do more harm than good. Where is the line? Do we start to move towards biomass as an option and then stop expanding? Is there a way of quantifying up to what point using biomass is a good change?

    Maybe alternative renewable energy options should be considered first.

    1. Great point. I think it is possible that heavy investment in biomass could lead to a dependence that is irreversible. It may be more effective to continue developing alternatives.

  14. Biomass has seven letters.
    There are seven kingdoms in Westeros.
    Westeros. The battle for Winterfell received an average rating of 9.0 on IMDB.
    There were 9 planets in the solar system until Pluto was declassified as a planet.
    Planet.
    We are the third planet from the Sun.
    The sun is hot. Hot has three letters.
    Three.
    Bio has three letters in it.
    A triangle has three sides.
    Coincidence?
    No.
    Biomass is illuminati confirmed.

  15. I was interested to read about Carbon Capture technology. While the idea of using this on biomass plants is exciting, the issues that you have detailed on the land requirements of biomass suggest to me that using biomass on a large scale would not be feasible even with CCS. However, I think the idea of using it with traditional technologies such as coal plants is exciting, if it can be made to work effectively at a low cost, this could provide dependable, carbon neutral energy with a small land use footprint.

  16. Biomass fuel production that derives from deforestation of native forests and wild lands is clearly wrong from a Kantian perspective, and probably a Utilitarian one too, due to the massive emissions in CO2 that would result. However, land that was previously used to farm livestock could be converted ethically.

  17. If biomass power generation with carbon capture could be used to have a net negative effect of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, then surely heavy investment in this area is the best approach to stemming the tide of climate change. With the UK government declaring a state of emergency in the last couple of days, every effort should be made regardless of the relatively minor issue of reduced biodiversity, as the long term consequences of climate change are far more severe.

  18. I agree with the part of the conclusion that biomass is acceptable to be used in some countries, however I do not think the UK is one of them – there simply isn’t enough room! Furthermore, importing the biomass required to replace fossil fuels would perpetuate issues of food supply in developing nations. In countries such as China and India where fossil fuels continue to be used, and which has a lot of space for arable land surely these are the places which should be sing biomass rather than coal?

    1. In my opinion we should invest more in batteries so that offshore wind can be better utilised.

      What about fuel cells? could they also present a viable option to replace coal and natural gas?

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