It’s difficult to decipher the headlines these days, and generally we don’t absorb more of the news than that. We’re too busy and there’s too much “news” thrown out there. Can we piece together the truth from a string of headlines? It’s hard enough to find the truth even with a deeper analysis. What first appears true might be false, and many things are both true and false to some degree. This is clear with the word “renewable”. Renewable energy is considered the holy grail for the future and every time the word “renewable” appears in a headline, it brings with it the sense of being the perfect saviour of the world. However, this isn’t always true, renewable isn’t always good. This is something that has hit me full in the face over the past few months.
Planet of the Humans
The first time the concept that renewable isn’t always good struck me was in the documentary called “Planet of the Humans“. While I was watching this documentary, I had one of those ah-ha moments. Just because some energy is renewable doesn’t mean it’s going to help save the world, in fact, it might be doing exactly the opposite. Even worse, some people might be using the word “renewable” deliberately to cover up something sinister (but profit making!).
The main points that struck me while watching this documentary were;
- Our biggest problem is that we use so much energy and trying to engineer our way out of this (by engineering huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines) is just going to kill the Earth in a different way. This is another good reason to keep pushing on with Use 10 Percent Less.
- Many renewable energy power plants use biomass. This is a fancy word for burning trees. They chop down forests and burn them and they say this is renewable. Strictly, this is true, except for point 3 below, but it’s also true that these power plants create more carbon emissions than other non-renewable plants. So they’re not really helping, but they add to “renewable” statistics.
- In the United States, if every tree was chopped down and burnt to create electricity, they would generate enough electricity for about a year. But… it would take about fifty years to grow those trees back! That’s not renewable unless you’d only like to have electrical power one year out of every fifty.
- It was also highlighted how trees were being cut down in the United States and shipped to Europe to feed “renewable” biomass power plants. This sounds horrific. The trees are cut down with machines using fossil fuels, trucked to the coast, put on ships, etc., to get them to Europe and then burnt. So, a lot of CO2 emissions are being made to have this “renewable” energy. It sounds crazy.
- They showed in the documentary that many rich and powerful people are behind the logging companies making money from this questionable energy resource. That’s really sad.
I’ve been concerned about the HS2 high-speed rail project in the UK for some time (see Concerns about HS2). I understand the political imperative. It’s a good way to boost the economy by having this very expensive construction project and it’s assumed that this piece of infrastructure will benefit the UK immensely in the years to come. But we’re not living in a world where railroads are the path to prosperity any more. We have the internet and the Covid-19 crisis has proven that we can do a lot more than we thought without travelling so much. The new, prosperous society will rely a lot less on the need for people to be moving every day, and this will be one of the keys of efficiency and success.
There are much better ways to benefit our society other than spending about 120 billion pounds on a rail network that will allow someone to travel from London to Birmingham in 45 minutes instead of 1 hour 22 minutes.
And the worst thing (even worse that the natural habitat destruction) is that the CO2 emissions made during the HS2 construction will require 120 years of running of the new train system to balance out. So there are only increased emissions to look forward to, for the next 120 years.
There doesn’t appear to be anything good about HS2 except that the government can give vast amounts of money to construction firms to stimulate employment (although the construction firms will be only thinking of profits).
Drax Power Station
During a webinar staged by the Resurgence Trust in July 2020, called “Introduction to Reaching Carbon Neutrality” with Mukti Mitchell, I learnt a bit about the Drax Power Station, and it’s not good. The Drax Power Station is the largest power station in the UK and it has partly switched from coal generation to biomass. Of course, it’s labelled as a renewable energy success even though the biomass power generation (burning trees!) creates more CO2 emissions than the coal power generation (this may or may not be true – see below). It’s a crazy situation.
On the Drax Power Station website they say they have “six boilers, four of which have now been converted to biomass” (the other two boilers are still burning coal), and state that the site “provides 12% of the country’s renewable power”. However, we know that renewable isn’t always good.
Information released by the Office for National Statistics (UK) gives me the best information for an analysis. In their article “A burning issue: biomass is the biggest source of renewable energy consumed in the UK“, they say;
The largest source of renewable energy we consume in the UK is not from the sun or wind – it’s from Biomass, that is, organic material from plants or animals.
In 2010, 0.6 million tonnes of wood pellets were imported, compared to 7.8 million tonnes in 2018.
In 2018, around 82% of wood pellets imported were from the United States and Canada.
…greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity generated from biomass can be lower or higher than those from fossil fuels like coal or gas depending on factors such as the type of biomass burnt and where it comes from.
And then a summary of some of the key statistics for 2017 (assuming I’ve calculated everything correctly);
|Gas||37||48 M tonnes||1.3|
|Oil||8||1 M tonnes||0.125|
|Coal||5||20 M tonnes||4|
|Biomass||4||15 M tonnes||3.75|
So, in terms of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions for each percent of power generated in the UK, Coal and Biomass are about equally polluting and gas and oil are much lower – much less polluting. Is that a surprise? In terms of GHG emissions, we’re much better off burning fossil fuels than biomass!
It is certainly true that the word renewable isn’t always good. Biomass power plants are adding to our “renewable” statistics but really doing nothing to reduce our pollution. We’d create less pollution by burning fossil fuels and that would be a better way to go as we ramp up pollution free energy sources. Wind and solar do not create pollution, but simply building the infrastructure does, so the best way to help the world is to simply find ways to use less energy. In the spirit of Use 10 Percent Less, we can start on this path today. We can use our intelligence to find ways to do what we need with lower demands on the Earth and even find that some of the things we’re doing, we simply don’t need to do.
Related Links – Renewable isn’t always good
- Concerns about HS2
- Stop HS2 – http://stophs2.org
- Drax Power Station – https://www.drax.com/about-us/drax-power-station/
- “A burning issue: biomass is the biggest source of renewable energy consumed in the UK” – from the Office for National Statistics (ONS)
- “Carbon emissions of different fuels” from Forest Research