The Expensive Dream of Clean Energy Will High Costs Kill Merkel's Green Revolution?


Part 6: Biomass Boom Sending Prices Soaring

The increased use of biomass as a source of energy has led to big price hikes for agricultural produce. Because customers these days want wheat or corn both as food and as fuel, 2 million of the total 12 million hectares of agricultural land in Germany are already devoted to energy crops -- biogas from maize, fuel from rye and diesel from rapeseed. The government plans a gigantic 13- to 17-fold increase in the use of biomass by 2050. In order to reach this ambitious goal, ideally, only plant waste would be processed into fuel, but the technology to achieve this is still in its infancy.

Based on current technology farmers would need to convert many millions of hectares of land to energy production. The result would be monocultures of maize or rapeseed. More biomass would need to be imported from Asia or Latin America, where palm oil crops are often planted on cleared rainforest land and sold at dumping prices. That flies in the face of ecological sustainability.

A quarter of a ton of wheat is enough to feed a human for an entire year -- or to fuel a heavy sports utility vehicle for a few hundred kilometers. German experts say there's an urgent need for major productivity gains in farming to help counter a destructive and inflationary competition for agricultural resources. As grain prices increase, so does the cost of keeping livestock and, in turn, the price of beef and pork. Consumers scrutinizing their supermarket receipts are noticing it. Fans of bio energy would be well advised to become vegetarians.

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