A worker checks the line at a biomass plant in Europe (Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty)

Bioenergy 101

Some people tout bioenergy as a solution to our climate crisis. But take a closer look, and this plant and animal power doesn’t actually live up to its promise.

Workers cut sugarcane in Mexico

Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty

Logging in Estonia

Offset

Not quite. Trees take decades to grow. Clearing forests to produce electricity causes a big outflow of emissions in the short term, as burning all that organic matter releases substantial amounts of carbon dioxide. And double-whammy: Once cleared, the forest is no longer available to soak up more of that carbon from our atmosphere—which is a big deal. In the United States, we rely on the expansion of forest carbon sinks to offset roughly 13 percent of annual global warming pollution.

Moreover, there’s no guarantee that the forests will be replanted at all, or in a way that truly allows for net-zero emissions. Development, or even shifting environmental conditions due to climate change, can waylay those plans, leaving us with a significant carbon surplus.

Though many biopower plants use wood waste from other industries, potentially bypassing this issue, the cheapest way to get wood is still by clear-cutting forests, which also devastates ecosystems and the wildlife that inhabits them. The situation becomes even more complicated when you consider that Europe, which has essentially exhausted its own forests, now imports U.S. wood pellets to meet the demand of its own biopower plants. These pellets, often made from clear-cut trees, are shipped across the Atlantic using petroleum-based fuel.

And of course, there’s the argument that cutting down trees to protect the environment is in itself contradictory.

Bioproducts

Though not technically a form of energy, bioproducts are often swept into the conversation about bioenergy, as their markets are necessarily intertwined. Bioproducts are simply anything made from organic matter—like newspapers, fertilizers, and, most notably, bioplastics, which are made from biomass such as sugars from corn kernels or sugarcane, rather than fossil fuels. Currently, up to 16 percent of crude oil consumption in the United States goes toward making chemicals and products like plastic rather than vehicle fuel. Important to note: Bioenergy plants, which may not make enough money early on to be economically viable, can reduce this risk by supplementing their production of fuel with the production of bioproducts as well.

The Future of Green Energy

Simply put, biomass is not currently a sustainable source of electricity or fuel. In fact, cutting down trees to produce electricity—one of the most common forms of bioenergy—can sometimes increase emissions.

Yes, plants absorb carbon while growing, and in theory this could balance out some of the emissions later when they are burned as fuel. However, harvesting biomass doesn’t just happen. Growing corn for ethanol, planting forests for electricity, or even capturing methane from rotting waste all require significant resources. So claims of carbon neutrality for bioenergy ignore important parts of the picture.

Innovations in solar, wind, and geothermal energy are significantly more promising. These forms of renewable energy perform better than bioenergy where it counts: in reducing carbon emissions. Thankfully, solar and wind are making big technological leaps, allowing us to better capture, store, and transport this energy for less money. For example, a recent study by Georgia Institute of Technology researchers showed that biomass electricity produced by Dominion Energy, a U.S.-based energy company, is still 50 percent more expensive than electricity from onshore wind and utility-scale solar. And countries and cities are doubling down to invest in these real renewables. By pitting itself against these more viable options, bioenergy may be waylaying our best chance for solving the climate crisis. And we simply don’t have time to waste.

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