28 Sep 2016 | Kerstine Appunn

Bioenergy's public acceptance problem

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Bioenergy isn’t as popular with the German public as the country’s other major renewable energy sources. Fears of swathes of the German countryside being subsumed by maize monoculture, as well as sustainability issues abroad, have tarnished the sector’s image. This factsheet outlines these and other public acceptance problems.

Compared to solar PV and wind energy, the biomass sector in Germany has struggled for acceptance – both in the general debate over its role in the energy system, and with regard to individual projects. Overall, public support for the installation of renewable energy facilities in Germany is high. A poll in 2016 showed that 62 percent of the public would agree to a renewable installation being built in their neighbourhood. Approval was highest for solar PV (73%), followed by wind (52%), while 38 percent said they would agree to have a biogas plant nearby.

Food vs fuel debate

The “food or fuel” discussion at the centre of international arguments against bioenergy has been held in Germany too.

Around half of Germany’s surface area or 16.7 million hectares (ha) are used for agriculture. Of these, 2.2 million ha (ca. 13%) are used for energy crops such as maize, rapeseed, sugar beet (2015). These are crops grown specifically to be turned into fuel for transport or to generate electricity. Since 2005 the land used for energy crops has expanded by around 1 million ha.

Between 2006 and 2015 the share of farmland (land for farming crops) used to produce biomass for power generation grew from 4 to 11.8 percent, the government estimates.

In Germany this has not resulted in any measurable shortage of food, or increase in food prices. However, a lively political and societal discourse over the past decade has often centred around competition over land between cattle and dairy farmers on the one side, and energy crops on the other – as well as the argument that energy crops lead to monocultures.

Maize

One of the main reasons why bioenergy – and biogas in particular – has acceptance problems in Germany is the high use of forage maize as a fuel crop for biogas plants.

Generous bonuses in the Renewable Energy Act of 2004 and 2009 made it very attractive for farmers to use forage maize in biogas plants (combined with manure). As an energy crop, maize has the advantage of providing a high volume of raw material per hectare, using existing harvesting technology, and storing well. With an average methane output per hectare of 4,700 m3, maize has the highest biogas yield of any energy crop. In 2014, maize accounted for 72 percent of all crop material used in German biogas plants.

Maize grows on 15.3 percent of Germany’s arable land. Between 1993 – when there was virtually no use of maize as an energy crop – and 2015, the land used for growing maize has increased from 1.6 million ha (or 9.3%) to 2.6 million ha. In 2015, 2.1 million ha of this was forage maize, of which the yield from 0.9 million ha (42%) was used for fermentation in biogas plants. About a third of the whole maize cultivation area in Germany is used for biogas substrate.

In some regions of Germany the increase in maize cultivation has led to concerns over monocultures and a rise in land prices. In 2013 the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) wrote that dairy farms and organic farms had trouble expanding because of competition for land from biogas farmers. Maize monocultures have adverse effects on soil, water and biodiversity, particularly if permanent grasslands or pastures are turned into maize fields, the agency states. People living in rural areas and close to biogas plants have complained about changes to the cultivated landscape because of monocultures, the noise from tractors delivering maize to biogas plants, and odours from the plants, all of which could lead to a decrease in property value.

In 2012, the government attempted to reduce the amount of maize used in biogas plants by restricting new facilities’ use of maize to 60 percent of their substrate, if they are to receive full feed-in tariffs for the energy they supply. As of 2014, this limit was lowered to 50, and will be cut to 44 percent in the coming years. The government hopes this measure will also tackle high land prices, it said in a reply to parliament in July 2016.

The biogas sector is keen to show that there are alternatives to maize. While no other plant can deliver as high a methane yield per hectare, crops like sugar beet, rye and millet can generate almost as much biogas, the Renewable Energies Agency (AEE) has shown. Other alternatives, like the North American cup plant (silphium perfoliatum), permanent grasslands, and blends of wild flowers, cannot achieve similarly high methane yields. But because they are perennial and require less work in terms of ploughing and fertilising (and less fertiliser) they are cheaper to grow and are therefore touted as viable by the sector. After recent trials, the 3.5 metre-high cup plant has been presented as an “adequate alternative” to maize by the German Biogas Association (Fachverband Biogas).

Wood pellets

Issues abroad, such as large scale use of wood pellets in the UK, where growing quantities of imported pellets are burned at the former coal-fired power station blocks Drax, have also tarnished the bioenergy sector’s image – even in Germany. With the UK and other European countries driving demand for wood pellets from exporting countries such as the U.S., Canada and Latvia, environmentalists have criticised the use of wood pellets as unsustainable and damaging to the climate. In Germany wood pellet imports do not play an important role in the biomass sector – the German Pellet Institute (DEPI) says that overall, Germany is a net exporter of wood pellets.

Palm oil

Germany imports some 1.8 million tonnes of palm oil or palm oil products each year (a total of 62.6 million tonnes were produced globally in 2015), most of which is used for bio-diesel and in food. By comparison, heavy users of palm oil like India, China and Indonesia consume between 5 and 10 million tonnes per year.

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