Renewables Not Needed

When organic material burns incompletely, it generates soot (which is not the same as carbon black). And soot is a problem. Scientists have linked the production of soot with at least two critical issues:

  • Climate change: “(soot has) stained parts of the Arctic black, changing the ice from a reflector of sunlight to an absorber of heat, and accelerating the melting of ice and snow, which itself is starting to alter global weather patterns.”
  • Air pollution deaths: “…the particles are breathed into lungs where they remain, causing and exacerbating respiratory diseases. Smoky fuels kill more than 4 million people a year, according to the World Health Organisation

Soot is produced from the incomplete burning of carbon in coal and petroleum, and also wood and similar biomass products.

This raises a question: if energy from biomass has negative externalities on human health, why does it find itself placed under a category that policy makers seek to expand?

Energy from biomass is categorised as ‘renewable’ energy in much of the world, as stocks of wood and other biomass products can be re-generated in short time scales (compared to fossil fuels). In fact, much of renewable energy — such as in Europe — is in fact energy from biomass.

The following figure displays the composition of primary* renewable energy supply in Europe (*which includes heating, electricity and energy industry own use):

And this figure displays the composition of renewable electricity production in Europe:

Biomass based energy is therefore a substantial chunk of primary renewable energy supply, while it is a smaller but growing portion in electricity generation.

So the question is: should policy makers be targeting an expansion of ‘renewable’ sources of energy, or emission-free sources of energy? Given the critical problem we are trying to solve is climate change and not a lack of resources**, the focus should be on expanding emission-free sources such as wind and solar, and not ‘renewables’ — as the category is designed to include wood and other biomass products.(**How long will fossil fuels last? I’ve tackled the issue here).

This, however, leads to at least two outcomes:

  • As nuclear energy does not emit greenhouse gases, a focus on emission-free sources of energy will imply a focus on nuclear along with wind and solar. However, how can concerns over radiation and nuclear waste be tackled?
  • In many developing countries such as India, biomass is extensively used as a cooking fuel. Electricity (from emission free sources) cannot easily replace fire in cooking applications, which necessitates the need for an expansion in the use of clean cooking fuels such as LPG and natural gas. In other words, fossil fuel use will need to increase in order to reduce the emission of soot and curb indoor air pollution. (According to a study, “2.4 of 5.6 million cases of chronic bronchitis, 0.3 of 0.76 million cases of Tuberculosis , 5 of 51.4 million cases of cataract among adult Indian women and 0.02 of 0.15 million stillbirths across India are attributable to household air pollution due to biomass cooking fuel”).

Welcome to the world of energy policy making.