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Biofuels in Europe, from Europe

4 marraskuun, 2014

This is an article based on the chapter discussing biofuels as substitute for crude oil, in our book The World After Cheap Oil (Facebook page). It was recently published by Routledge. You can find other relevant articles here.

Please share the articles, like us on facebook and tweet (@kaikenhuippu). Even better, buy the book, write a review, lend it to people you know, buy it as a Christmas present.


European Union has recently woken up to realize that using biofuels made of food crops might not be a very good idea on the whole. It has raised global food prices significantly, leading to hunger and civil unrest amongst the poorer people of the world. Even the envisioned emissions reductions have failed to materialize, since land-use changes have proved to be a significant source for emissions. As a result, there have been actions (if meager) to cut the part of food-crop based biofuels on the total bio-component of gasoline and diesel-oil.

Since biofuels made of food crops are a very bad idea, we will need another feedstock. The next in line, at least domestically thinking, are the so called second-generation, cellulose-based biofuels. That is, liquid fuels made of woodchips and such. So what do the numbers tell us?

Let’s use a state of the art (not even built yet, but planned) Fischer-Tropsch bio-refinery from UPM as an example. It uses 1.5-2 million cubic meters of wood annually, with energy content of around 3–4 TWh. In addition, it uses 0.4 TWh of electricity and 5 000 tons of hydrogen. Other feedstock includes nitrogen, oxygen (400 000 tons / year), heat for drying, steam, cooling water and sweet water. The output of the refinery is around 300 000 tons of mainly biodiesel and naphtha, which corresponds to around 6 000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. The refinery in question would be integrated to a paper- or pulp-mill, so it can use all the benefits of co-production to be maximally efficient.

What do these numbers mean? EU uses roughly 13 mbpd of oil (with over 11 mbpd imported). As a ”back of the envelope”-calculation, replacing this oil with bio-oil is a daunting task. It would require around 2,200 such bio-refineries, which cost 0.5 billion a piece (so maybe 1000 billion in total). The refineries would require 880 TWh of electricity per year, which equals the combined electricity consumption of Germany and UK, or around one fourth of total EU electricity consumption.

The wood used as the main feedstock amounts to 4,000 million m3 annually. This is more than six times the annual growth of forests in Europe, and more than ten times the current annual logging. The forests of Europe would be gone in mere six years. The rather meager 1.3 percent slice that forestry-based activities contribute to European GDP would grow substantially, at least for a few years. Of course this is only theoretical. Nobody is talking of replacing all our (mostly imported) oil with biofuels anytime soon.

Let’s assume that Europeans use around half of their oil in transportation (it is in the ballpark for our back-of-the-envelope calculation). If we were to liquefy all of our total annual forest loggings, we would manage to get around 20 percent of our transportation oil use covered. But then there would be nothing left for the integrated paper mill to produce. No wood for building stuff like houses and furniture.

The core message here is that we need to drastically cut back our dependency on oil, especially in transportation, before we can start to find meaningful substitutes for crude oil. Not just for climate’s sake (increased logging is nowhere near carbon-neutral, says recent studies), but for our economy’s sake. Imported oil is a major factor in the European recession that has been more or less going on as long as we have had oil prices above 100 USD per barrel (since 2008). Biofuels, when they are not a very bad idea to begin with (like using food crops that are needed to fuel people, not cars), can play only a small part. And if we import our biofuels, we will end up paying even more than we would for conventional oil. The needed scale just isn’t there, and probably won’t be for decades. High oil prices, on the other hand, have already been wrecking our economy for years already.

5 kommenttia
  1. Professor Brian Cox said on UK TV recently that all the world’s plants grown over an entire year have as much energy was we use in a single day: Greens were told as much 20 years ago. They chose to ignore it, because their energy gurus mandated biofuels as ’renewable’. Renewables were good, nuclear power was evil. Now biofuels and biomass are with us, in policy prescriptions. Greens say ”Foul, we never wanted that!”. The sad fact is greens are juvenile, and irresponsible, never admit to mistakes; just like spoilt children.

    • ”The sad fact is greens are juvenile, and irresponsible, never admit to mistakes; just like spoilt children.”

      But you will never get them to admit that! 😉

      More seriously, it is a bit of a problem, which comes from many things. The lack of understanding the scale of the energy-situation is maybe on of the biggest ones. It takes some reading and research, which one has to do on ones own (at least I had to – I didn’t get any of this in any school – or if I did I already forgot). We never actually stopped using biomass, even though the european forests were saved by coal (at least temporarily). We have just piled one energy source on top of another, expanding our economy ever more, with the exception of the 1970’s oil and energy crises when we actually replaced oil use in electricity generation with nuclear and coal.

      So it will be hard to replace even a small part of the 87 % primary energy share of fossil fuels (or roughly a third for crude oil) by expanding our use of biomass, which already threathens biodiversity in a very serious way and only accounts for a few per cent of our energy use. The math is there, but cognitive dissonance makes it hard to understand for many.

  2. This is not true what you are saying. Global green permaculture movement has been speaking about these things well over forty years and are designing local renegerative systems which can stand without outside imput of oil. However there is part of never generation of techonology and science believing greens who are looking all the time for next big invention as a saviour and who are often thinking that some new technology will change everything.
    I have understood that big part of the oil production goes globally to agriculture and todays population growth had been made possible by oil. Think what happen when food prices will continue to climb? Arab spring was starting cos of raising food prices as well as the Genocide of Rwanda. This together with ecosystem collapses caused by climate change and mismanaged lands will surely bring a great deal of misery and death and it might all be happening while we are writing. Some of you may have noted that Sao Paulo, the most populous city in South America (9million) will run out of water next year as reservoirs are emptying.

    Also the State of California is already in huge problems cos of the lack of rains. Have got used to Sun Maid raisins etc? U can forget those if things continue as it stands.

    • True, that ”Greens” is a bit too broad umbrella, and making such generalizations is usually not a good idea. A bit like ”renewable energy” that includes lots of different things which have totally different attributes and sustainability. I am one kind of environmentalist myself, and I know environmetalists who have very different views than I do.

      The thing is that, for example, top green politicians here in Finland have directly proposed windparks with a few biomass-fueled powerplants to replace a nuclear powerplant, which is exactly the thing that was pictured in Mark’s comment (and can only be a step back in climate change mitigation – it just depends how large a step).

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