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How Biomass Can Provide 25% of Global Energy without Affecting Food Production

By James Burgess | Sat, 26 November 2011 16:48 | 0

It is perfectly understood that no one renewable energy source will replace our dependence on fossil fuels. It will take an energy system mix where we rely on the combined input of many different renewable sources. One such source is Biomass, the energy created by all living organisms. Biomass has always been relegated to the back of the queue of renewable energy sources because it requires large amounts of land and therefore would compete with food production and forests. However, a new report, which reviews more than 90 global studies, was released by the Technology and Policy Assessment function of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) claims that biomass is a far more viable option than previously thought. In fact it could well produce 25% of the global energy needs without damaging food production.

The report finds that the main reason scientists disagree is that they make different assumptions about population, diet, and land use. A particularly important bone of contention is the speed with which productivity improvements in food and energy crop production can be rolled out.

“If we make the best use of agricultural residues, energy crops and waste materials then getting one fifth of current global energy supply from biomass is a reasonable ambition”, says Dr Raphael Slade, the report’s lead author and a Research Fellow at Imperial College London. Source. Internationalsustainableenergy.com

The problem with making such long-term, macroeconomic suppositions and then making grand statements based upon them is that there are many contributing factors that could change and therefore void the theory. Trying to predict how global economies may develop in the future and also the impact that may have on dietary requirements seems an incredibly tenuous base upon which to formulate a controversial statement. Obviously it would be wonderful if biomass could be easily implemented to produce 25% of global energy needs without negatively effecting the environment or food production, but in my opinion more advances in food production efficiency would have to be made before I would confidently champion this as a strategy for the future.

Technical advances could be the least contentious route to increased bio-energy production, but policy will need to encourage innovation and investment. A renewed focus on increasing food and energy crop yields could deliver a win-win opportunity as long as it is done without damaging soil fertility or depleting water resources. The report highlights the potential for policy to promote learning by encouraging development of sustainable biomass now, rather than waiting for the definitive answer on the ultimate potential.

“The main mistake is to think of this as all or nothing. There’s plenty of scope for experimentation to make sure we get it right”, says Dr Slade.

The report stresses the need for scientists working on food and agriculture to work more closely with bio-energy specialists to address challenges such as water availability and environmental protection. If biomass is required to play a major role in the future energy system the linkages between bio-energy and food production will become too important for either to be considered in isolation. Source. Internationalsustainableenergy.com

Maybe, with the backing of government policies and funding, and by closer collaboration between scientists in agriculture and biomass energy sectors, the grand hopes that this report offers could come to pass. Biomass is renewable, green, and risk free; using it to provide 25% of the world’s energy would be an enormous step towards reducing CO2 emissions. However, I think that this report might be based too heavily on future predictions for governments to back it at the moment, especially when other energy sources seem more realistic.

By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com

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