Bioenergy? Not So Fast

There’s no one, set-in-stone blueprint for Germany’s energy transition. A lot of it will be made up along the way and plans will change as we learn more. One of the Energiewende’s pillars, for example, namely bioenergy, has just been subjected to a blistering critique by Germany’s foremost scientists.

None other than the prestigious German National Academy of Sciences has come down hard on Germany’s intention to replace conventional oil, coal, and gas with bioenergies made from the likes of corn, grain, and straw. In fact, the plan at the moment is increase bioenergy’s share of the country’s total energy mix from 8 percent today to 23 percent by 2050.

Until now this looked like a no-brainer. German farmers have jumped on the possibility of growing “energy crops” and you can see them all across Germany’s countryside wherever there is fertile soil. Moreover, bioenergy had been considered “climate neutral” and its products like biodiesel, biogas, and biopetrol can all be conveniently stored, unlike other renewables.

But the German scientists say “not so fast!” “Neither today nor in the future will bioenergy make a quantitatively substantial contribution to the Energiewende.” There are no grounds, says the report, to develop bioenergies beyond their present capacity.

Blunt stuff! So why? They argue that energy crops require considerably more land and their production creates significantly more carbon emissions than other renewable energies, like solar and wind power. Moreover, they sap the soil of nutrients, contaminate the water supply, and create damaging competition with agricultural produce (for human consumption).

And not only are these Einsteins calling on the German government to rethink and redraft, but the EU too. The EU aims to have biofuels supplant ten percent of conventional fuels by 2020. Think again!

This is rough — and it’s certainly not the last word. But if it sticks, it’s going to require planners to make some large-scale changes to the roadmap.

The report however had one ray of sunshine: bioenergies made from compost and dung are still legit.

Paul Hockenos writes on Germany’s energy transition for a number of media in the U.S. and Europe. His own blog is Going Renewable.

Lead image: Slow sign via Shutterstock

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Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based author who has written about Europe since 1989. Paul is the author of three major books on European politics: Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkans Wars, and Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany. From 1997-99 he worked with the international mission in Bosnia and 2003-04 in Kosovo. Since then, Paul has held fellowships with the American Academy in Berlin, the European Journalism College in Berlin, and the German Marshall Fund. He was an editor at Internationale Politik, Germany’s leading foreign affairs journal, for five years. He is currently author of the blog Going Renewable and is writing a book about Germany’s energy revolution.

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