The renewable energy paradigm requires an unprecedented industrial reengineering of the landscape.
Aug. 27, 2014 6:38 p.m. ET THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Will Boisvert writing at thebreakthrough.org
On the face of it, bioenergy would seem to embody the ecological vision: an energy source rooted in the soil, attuned to the seasons, and governed by life's cycling rhythms of growth, decay, and reuse. But today, that expression of the ecological vision is destroying nature in order to save it. From the production forests of Germany to the rainforests of Southeast Asia to the American Midwest, we are using millions of square miles of land for crops to feed our cars and power plants that could be used to feed people or become wilderness.
As the scale of the carnage has become evident, a growing number of environmentalists have turned against biofuels. But the change of heart about present generation biofuels hasn't stopped their rapid expansion. Biofuels represent one of the fastest growing wedges of the renewables pie. Germany's heavy investments in solar and wind get most of the attention, but 29 percent of its renewable electricity comes from burning woody biomass in power plants. Throw in liquid biofuel production and wood-fired space heating and biomass provides 38 percent of Germany's non-fossil-fueled energy.
Half of Germany's timber harvest is now burned for fuel, and 17 percent of its arable land is used to grow energy crops for biodiesel, ethanol, and biogas production, a proportion that may rise to one third by 2020. The rest of Europe is also turning to biomass heating and electricity generated in refitted coal plants as an easy way to meet renewable energy mandates, using millions of tons of domestic and imported wood. Energy derived from ethanol in the United States far outstrips the power generated by the wind and solar sectors.
The growing reliance upon biofuels as public commitments to renewables have grown is neither an accident nor a coincidence. The renewable energy paradigm requires an unprecedented industrial reengineering of the landscape: lining every horizon with forty-story wind turbines, paving deserts with concentrating solar mirrors, girdling the coasts with tidal and wave generators, and drilling for geological heat reservoirs; it sees all of nature as an integrated machine for producing energy.