How prominent are European renewables?

Deconstruction of the EU’s actual greenness must start by separating old renewables from new renewables — an essential task because in most countries the old renewables still provide the largest combined contribution in the green category. Readers of European news might be forgiven if they thought that wind turbines and PV panels, both heavily promoted and subsidized by many governments, lead the charge toward the continent’s renewable future. Actually, “solid biofuels” continue to be by far the largest category. In plain English, solid biofuels are wood, the oldest of fuels, be it trunks directly harvested for heat and electricity generation and burned as chips, or large amounts of wood-processing waste — a category particularly abundant in the EU’s two Nordic members with large forestry sectors. In 2012, 80 percent of Finland’s and 52 percent of Sweden’s renewable energy came from wood, and the average for EU-28 was 47 percent; even for Germany, the most aggressive developer of wind and solar, it was about 36 percent.

Burning logging and wood-processing wastes make sense; importing wood chips from overseas in order to meet green quotas does not. In 2013, the EU was burning more than 6 million tons of imported wood pellets. According to Forests and the European Union Resource Network, if all the EU states were to meet their 2020 green quotas, some of them would have to burn 50-100 percent more wood than they did in 2010. Imports now come mostly from North American and Russian forests, but Brazil is considered as the best source for future imports.

The irrationality of wood-based electricity generation is perhaps best illustrated by the conversion of Britain’s largest, originally coal-fired station to burning wood chips: initially they were to come from Brazil, but eventually more than 6 million tons a year will come from the swamp forests of North Carolina and tree plantations in Georgia. And wood-burning electricity generation would not be carbon-neutral even if all the trees cut down for chips were promptly replanted and if all of them regrew quickly and completely: more trees would have to be planted in order to offset carbon released by fossil fuels used in harvesting, processing, and intercontinental transportation of imported wood.

That is from Vaclav Smil, there is more here.


I wonder what epithets those who opposed such cockamamie schemes were called.

Bog men?

Next up: using peat!

Anti corner cutters?

'Deconstruction of the EU’s actual greenness must start by separating old renewables from new renewables'

Which is tricky in itself, of course. Adding a turbine to an existing dam would be what? Like at Rheinkraftwerk Iffezheim, where the latest turbine added 38 MW to bring the total performance to the plant's current output of 146 MW.

And if wikipedia is to be trusted, this single turbine added 17% to the current annual generation of 860 GWh.

Other German examples would include the replacement of panels at a solar facility, especially ones generating hot water (solar hot water heating is competitive in terms of cost/energy saving, many places have facilities that are more than a decade old). As the latest technology tends to be notably better in terms of performance/price, as older components are replaced, how does one measure this?

Even more concretely, let's use an example from the article - 'In plain English, solid biofuels are wood, the oldest of fuels, be it trunks directly harvested for heat and electricity generation and burned as chips' Yep, one burns carbon to generate heat and electricity.

'The irrationality of wood-based electricity generation is perhaps best illustrated by the conversion of Britain’s largest, originally coal-fired station to burning wood chips: initially they were to come from Brazil, but eventually more than 6 million tons a year will come from the swamp forests of North Carolina and tree plantations in Georgia.'

So, before the plant was burning 6 million tons of coal (for fun, let's just pretend the coal came from Virginia via Hampton Roads - one of the world's largest coal harbors, and it isn't as if the British have been producers of coal since the Thatcher years - that 6 million tons of fuel was going to be imported regardless).

If the goal is to reduce use of what anyone that supports nuclear power will explain in detail is the dirtiest source of energy, this seems like desirable policy. Almost as if the idea of clean fuel and renewable fuel could be considered equally valid public policy goals. Especially in a country with such long experience of coal burning.

The hydroelectric upgrades and turbines in our area have been of two sorts; better efficiency compared to 1970's era technology, and demand capacity. The demand capacity units are added where there isn't enough water for continuous operation, but seasonal and short term flow increases, added capacity for maintenance shutdowns along with the price increases of electricity make them viable.

I wouldn't believe Wikipedia. Electricity generation has to be measured in supplied load to be meaningful.

I wonder if the energy derived from the wood chips offsets the energy costs in harvesting, processing and transporting them?

'Electricity generation has to be measured in supplied load to be meaningful.'

Here I was, thinking 'current annual generation of 860 GWh' referred to 860 supplied gigawatt hours. Which agrees with the definition found here - 'Gigawatt hours, abbreviated as GWh, is a unit of energy representing one billion (1 000 000 000) watt hours and is equivalent to one million kilowatt hours. Gigawatt hours are often used as a measure of the output of large electricity power stations.'

I think the difference between "supplied load" and "generating capacity" would be the fraction that does not end up as useful output because of various factors (no demand, no transmission capacity, too expensive, downtime).

However, I don't understand what the original author is attempting to tell us either. Burning wood and hydro power are both renewable in a way that burning oil, gas or coal aren't.

Supplied load is what EnBW sold from the Rheinkraftwerk Iffezheim in 12 months. Capacity is what the turbines can produce.

There is no question that nameplate capacity and produced power which entered the electric transmission network are not the same thing - and that everyone involved in such debates loves to use the figures that make them look best.

However, to get back to the original point of measuring renewables share, old and new - how does the 17% annual increase in actual supplied electricity at a dam built in the 1970s get counted?

The same would apply to the Schwarzenbachtalsperre, a pumped storage site which is designed to capture 'excess' electricity at times of low demand, and generate power during peak demands. This site is completely unaffected by how the electricity is produced - it simply smooths loads into an economic fashion. But it is just as capable of using wind generated electricity as nuclear generated electricity.

Hydroelectric capacity is a factor of how much water is available. The supplied load could be demand at certain times, where water is held back and the generation is brought online during that time. It can produce the nameplate output, but there isn't enough water to sustain that output.

So is the 17% an increase in supplied load over a year, or 17% nameplate nominal capacity?

All generation technologies have peculiarities when it comes to supplying load, and the nominal generation capacity is a meaningless term. Locally the utility makes arrangements with large consumers such as schools that heat with electric to be able to drop the load if required. They will turn the heat off for an hour or so which essentially gives them more supplied load capacity with their existing plant. They offer a low rate structure if you only consume electricity outside of the peak demand periods. Wind and solar have extreme characteristics, extreme variability and unreliability. Nuclear is extreme in the other way, once it is started and running it is impractical to drop capacity, which causes it's own complications.

Load-following nukes are straightforward, eg Commonwealth Edison's boiling-water reactors in Illinois (reactors now owned by Exelon). IIRC, all of France's pressurized light-water reactors are also load-following. The fact that so few of the US reactors are designed to be load-following says more about planners in the 1960s and 1970s missing the boat on the cost of nuclear than anything -- nukes were going to be cheaper than anything else, so of course you'd run them full-out all the time, throttling back the other more-expensive sources instead.

Commonwealth Edison joined the PJM regional transmission organization largely so that Exelon could sell otherwise unused nightime nuclear capacity into East Coast markets.

If you consider burning wood to be renewable, burning oil ought to be renewable too. We've reached the point where you can fairly easily convert wood to oil (gassification followed Water Gas Shift followed by Fischer Tropsch).

It's only a question of cost. Not prohibitive, but perhaps more than natural crude.

This is not about electricity, it's about total primary energy consumption. So, do the windmills and PV panels keep people warm during the winter?

Of course not - that is what burning wood does. Often using what is called in German Kraft-Wärme-Kopplung or power-heat cogeneration. There is no reason not to use the waste heat from electric production after all.

In German, the term is Fernwärme, for the concept of delivering heat/hot water, and does not need to be tied to power production. For example, there is an entire new area in the next town where all heating and hot water is supplied by burning local wood - of course, the insulation standards of the new construction is much higher, and the larger (though very local - it also supplies a school) facility is considerably more efficient than supplying smaller individual furnaces, with much better emissions control in terms of wood burning.

It really is a mixture of strategies - insulation, more efficient use of fuel, various sources of power. All of them tending to reduce the profits of centralized energy companies.

It does not take a scholar of the Virginia School to recognize what that means in practical political terms.

Yes, those evil energy companies who provide cheap and reliable power and have done so for generations.

I think the point was that they are importing wood pellets for electricity generation, which is different from using them to heat your house with sustainably collected wood.

"This is not about electricity, it’s about total primary energy consumption. So, do the windmills and PV panels keep people warm during the winter?"

It does if you are a capitalist.

But pillage and plundering, burning natural capital, leaving behind wasteland, polluted water and air requires a lot less labor and is thus cheaper.

The most efficient way to heat and cool is with wind and solar harvesting to produce electricity to drive heat pumps that transfers heat to and from the massive earth sink.

But that costs more because of capitalism.

The labor to manufacture the wind turbines and solar arrays and then construct the farms to harvest the energy to make electricity must be paid for. The cost of labor to manufacture and install heat pumps must be paid for. The labor to drill baby drill the boreholes for the circulating water-glycol mix to move the heat back and forth between house and the earth must be paid for. The cost of operators to supervise and maintain this capital must be paid for. The farms will have useful lifetimes of centuries. The borehole a life of a century or more. The frameworks for the solar and turbines will have lifetimes of 50-60 years before being recycled at 90%, The wind nacelles and solar panels will last three decades before recycling at 95-98%. The electronics will have lifetimes of a decade until recycled at 90%. The HVAC heat pump will have a life of two to three decades depending on generation.

Roof top solar heating and solar PV can be incorporated in this system as well.

The capital investment when Carter laid this out for the nation as a strategy would have been probably $500,000 for a home costing $100,000, but that would be a cost spread over an average quarter century. Today the cost is probably $250,000 for a house costing $350,000 thanks to economies of scale introducing and proving technology improvements, spread over an average half century.

If eliminating burning fossil fuels just to heat or cool the roughly 100 million buildings in the US were undertaken as a one or two decade project, the ground source assets useful for a century would represent a 5 to 10 million project per year scale investment just in the US, and lots of people would be looking for ways to lower the cost and improve the performance. Thus a volume equivalent to motor vehicle manufacturing, and the cost of the borehole or a number of similar methods are of comparable cost to a motor vehicle.

The only way coal and oil and gas can compete, apparently, is to let those industries pollute water because maintaining everything to prevent pollution costs too much added labor cost, leave behind wasteland where they mining is done because clean up requires too much added labor cost, let the workers be killed because worker safety costs too much added labor cost, and pollute the air with mercury, NOx and SOx, and unburned particulates because eliminating that pollution requires too much added labor cost for capital assets and maintaining the air pollution control assets and then processing and disposing of the captured waste.

The coal power ash ponds are sitting around not because the ash is not useful, but because the labor cost of turning the ash into useful products is too high for an old coal power plant to compete with wind and gas cogen. Wind capital assets for a reliable base power load is the same or lower than a new "clean coal" power plant for the capital assets. Add in gas cogen and the wind variability is compensated for with electric power generated for very little cost because a burn gas for heat application is converted to burn a bit more gas for heat and electricity. Old coal plants are destined to be abandoned as bankrupt operations, and the ash ponds will then become superfund sites to be cleaned up by taxpayers.

PBS The Roosevelts has a clip of FDR speaking of the next thousand years of the USA. Does a fossil fuel economy last for the next thousand years of US history? Does the USA collapse when fossil fuels run out, long before a thousand years pass?

So, before the plant was burning 6 million tons of coal

This doesn't change your point, but coal has about 50% more energy density than, 4 million tons of coal.

Wood chips have been a major source of energy for much more than a century. Wood must be dried before it can be used as lumber, and this is generally done in lumber kilns which are fired by bark and wood chips, i.e. the waste from sawing wood into standard shapes of lumber. Wood chips have been used for this purpose since lumber kilns were first used. Drying lumber has been a major consumer of energy for a very long time, but it has been largely self-sufficient for pretty much all of that time.

But hey, if you can relabel this use as "renewable energy" and get some sort of tax credits for it, you won't turn that down. Of course, it's not displacing any use of coal, petroleum, or natural gas.

I will add that wood was used by the early American colonists since it was plentiful in America, while coal was used by the Brits since coal was plentiful in England and hence King Coal powered the Industrial Revolution. The Carolinas are a well known source for furniture, but now being displaced by illegal logging in southeast Asia, where in the Philippines this takes the form of floating lumber yards, literally ships, that park offshore of forested islands and, with the connivance of local corrupt officials, harvest rare timber illegally. Here in PH I can buy a red hardwood table for about the same cost as a plywood table in the USA, i.e., for almost nothing.

So the "local corrupt officials" should defer the control of their own renewable resources (and the income derived from them) to regional or national corrupt officials? Or perhaps some international agency that looks after that sort of thing. By defying absentee control of their own resources they are promoting "illegal" logging. The locals, some of whom are doubtless being paid to do the logging of the trees in their immediate vicinity, probably don't look at it in exactly the same way.

So what are they using as fuel for lumber kilns these days?

They still are using wood chips. That's unlikely to ever stop.

mind = blown

Is electricity only ~16% of the total primary energy supply? Where does all other primary energy go into? Heating, vehicles & factory boilers?

>Heating, vehicles & factory boilers?

Which taken generally include also furnaces, cement kilns and other pyroprocessing, chemical reactors, cracking units, oil extraction (especially oil sands are hungry) and ore mining and some of the vehicles are those ships that move 90% of everything at least somewhere along the supply chain and of course, the pesky airplanes that Greens use to move around the globe, chasing conferences on reducing air travel. Modern infrastructure is power hungry giant that has to be constantly fed with enormous inputs to keep us afloat.

According to Wikipedia / US-EIA in USA electricity accounts for ~40% of the total energy pie:

40% was more in line with what I was expecting than 16%. Which is why Smil's quote on Germany surprised me.

The hot regions in the US don't use nearly as much heating oil and natural gas (but much more electric air conditioning), and even aside from that, it's very common in such areas to have heating supplied by electric heat pump. So I suspect that that can cause a tremendous difference, by moving energy to and from non-electricity heating to electricity.

I have, for example, occasionally seen somewhat misleading graphs comparing New York or Massachusetts electricity use to the South, ignoring the energy consumption for heating oil and natural gas in those colder states, which makes the comparison closer.

My German estimate of 16% electric as a share of total energy might also be wrong. Does anyone have another source?

I calculated it indirectly on this bit from the article:

"Even in Germany their combined share of total primary energy supply was just 2 percent in 2012. Germany’s nuclear reactors, slated for closure by the year 2022, generated 16 percent of the country’s electricity in 2012, compared to 11.9 percent for wind and solar,"

Rahul, I don't have an exact figure for the EU, but energy used to generate electricity as a percentage of primary energy should be much closer to 50% than 16%. Perhaps someone has gone and adjusted for the relative inefficiency of nuclear and fossil fuels plants at turning heat into energy to get the 16% figure. If so, that could get confusing if it's not made explicit.

In the UK at least, heating is the single largest energy user. The average home uses 60% of its energy in space heating and 24% in water heating (daily hot showers are standard); with the rest going on cooking, lighting, and other appliances.

Green promoters tend to cite electricity only, e.g. "Renewable electricity delivering a record-breaking 46 per cent of Scotland's gross electricity consumption last year." That sounds impressive; but it only covers electricity. Most homes in the UK use gas for heating (or oil in rural areas), and as per the figures above, heating is a much a greater component of total energy consumption than electrical appliances.

Maybe there's a case to be made for a resurgance in piped city-wide steam systems? I bet all these teeny weeny boilers in thousands of houses are nowhere as efficient as a single large one? Perhaps the large one can be Cogen too?

Actually the opposite. A commodity gas fired furnace is more than 90% efficient. Hot water boilers are hard to get to 80%, steam even less. That is a percentage of the energy contained in the fuel transferred to your load. It is far more efficient to burn natural gas directly to heat your home than to have a turbine spun by natural gas generate electricity at a shockingly low efficiency rate, transmit it over distance, then change it into heat in your home either by electric resistance or even heat pump.

Large commercial buildings have complex demands that may better be served by centralized heating plants. Including risk alleviation.

I was talking about transmitting steam. Not electricity. In dense, urban areas, of course.

Is that also worse than distributed NG heating?

It's unclear to me what you mean by efficiency when it comes to heating. In most heating applications, the fraction of chemical (i.e. fuel) or electrical energy used that is converted to heat is very nearly 100%. The question is how much of that heat goes into your house and how much goes up the chimney. Most modern home heating systems are pretty efficient, at 80 - 90%. Thus it seems like transmission losses would doom steam transport. (Except, as you note, in a co-gen scenario, where the heat is being generated as a byproduct of electricity production and so is "free" in a sense.)

Yes, cogen it would have to be. I see many medium scale industries (say those needing ~5 tons/hr. of steam ) going Cogen in Asia. Partly because of the high cost of grid power & its unreliability.

So for a dense urban area cogen might be a good option. Especially in medium sized towns where plant site locations aren't a huge problem.

Maybe downtown. Not likely more efficient in the suburbs. But then again there never was anything efficient about suburbs.

Yes, a lot of energy goes into heating. The house where I live (4 individual apartments, 9 people) consumed 13,000 liters of heating oil last year, and it was a mild winter.

Wood chips home heating is a good use for forestry byproducts. Perhaps an electricity plant works in places with big forestry exploitation....but UK?

Not unlike the fact that most English windfarms and almost 2/3 of Scottish windfarms are built on peat, which are massive carbon sinks. Destroying the peat to produce wind results in a net increase of carbon.

And deeply indebted governments are paying for this net increase in carbon.

Insane. Along with Indonesia destroying millions of acres of virgin forest to supply biofuel for subsidy-mad govts.

Without a carbon tax whose effects have worked through the economy, it is difficult to know what IS a lower CO2 emitting technology.Subsidizing either "renewables" vs "non-renewables" is a very crude approximation to a carbon tax, so it is not surprising that any particular "renewable" is not "carbon neutral" as measured in some specific way.

They're burning wood? And that is supposed to be "green?"

What would you rather do with wood-waste?

Burning it isn't the problem. Shipping it 3000 miles to burn is.

What does Ikea sell if not wood-waste?

Ikea is already welcome to buy all the waste it wants.

They're Europeans. They can afford to hire Third World labor to build and crew wooden four-masted sailing ships to carry the wood pellets across the ocean from North America. That would be "green".

Next, the Europeans will start to generate electricity from a Tire Fire, like the perpetual smoldering fire at the tire dump in Springfield on "The Simpsons," and tell us that's Green.

It's called garbage incineration or waste-to-energy electricity. If you use the technology to catch pollutants and dispose them properly, why not? Compared to's hard to see burning trash for electricity as bad.

My microwave caught fire today and filled the house with acrid smoke. I had to go to Target and buy a new microwave. The Europeans would call that "renewable energy."

Somewhat related, there is a good series of papers by Hirith and coauthors which attempt to quantify the cost of integrating variable renewable energy into the grid. They find that even at relatively low 20% penetration level, the true cost of wind is about twice its widely quoted levelized cost of energy. The main reason is that you need to keep almost all of the fossil fuel infrastructure in place to supply power when the wind isn't blowing.

At some point we are (hopefully) going to realize that the solution to both our carbon and our energy problem is clean, safe nuclear power.

Smarter on-demand, load-shedding seems one obvious way ahead. Incentivized, of course. In industrial processes this might be worth it. Another change is more transmission links.

OTOH, how high is the overall correlatedness of wind + solar over a reasonable sized transmission region. Say, if western EU was all thickly grid connected, how often / deep is the net hole in generation due to a wind + solar simultaneous failure throughout.

A smart grid together with an electrified transportation system certainly would help, but won't be able to solve the problem of the existence of long time(~week) , large scale lulls in wind power. Wind is less correlated than solar, but still positively correlated over fairly large distances (e.g. Germany-France) and is not negatively correlated over even larger distances (Germany-Spain):

This means that there is some benefit to geographical diversification, but not as much as one might hope. Also, a solution of this kind requires building large excess capacity and lots of transmission lines, both of which are quite expensive.

Here's a simple but good overview of the storage problem:

Why does he use the term "deconstruction"?

I worked on a business plan to build a wood-fired power plan in Northern Canada. Of course the project economics were entirely based on the various (Californian!) carbon and methane avoidance credits as well as significant levels of Government grants. The power plant is considered carbon neutral because the trees to be burned were self-sprouting aspens that replace themselves with shoots from the roots when cut down (so all carbon would be re-captured in 25 or so years). Methane avoidance credits were due to burning the waste branches of local lumber operations that would otherwise be piled up and rotting. Even with free fuel the plant was uneconomical under market power curves without the various subsidies.

One point which Smil's article doesn't indicate is what's the market price for wood chips in itself? i.e. Is there a chance that in spite of transatlantic transportation to EU they remain a profitable fuel, sans the subsidy?

>Is there a chance that in spite of transatlantic transportation to EU they remain a profitable fuel, sans the subsidy?


One has to wonder whether this is really wood "waste" being burnt for energy production and use, which might be supportable as a "green" method if the wood would have ended up combusted one way or another. However, one strongly suspects that the subsidies and regulations involved are causing the burning of wood that otherwise would never have been harvested today.

Almost half of Europe's renewable energy is generated by burning wood? That's absurd.

Here in California we have "spare the air" days where wood burning is banned and punishable by hefty fines. It's not just CO2 we have to worry about but particulate matter and other local air pollution issues. Burning wood instead of natural gas to produce electricity shouldn't be considered "green" energy, especially if you care about things like public health and local air quality.

Burning excess wood waste that is produced locally by saw mills or construction crews is fine. Importing wood chips from thousands of miles away almost certainly negates any climate benefits. Are they factoring in transportation-related emissions when calculating CO2 emissions? Why is this being subsidized?

Burning wood chips in a ginormous power plant tends to be a wee bit different than your typical backyard burn. Especially for particulates there's tons of equipment installed.

Yes CO2 is the pesky problem but that's there no matter what you burn.

It makes sense to heat a house. Not sure about electricity generation. I would guess not so much so.

A few points on energy from biomass:

1. Burning biomass is better than burning coal. Europe does make an effort to source biomass from places where the mass will be regrown and so overall it emits much less net CO2 than coal. Also, burned as it is in Europe it is much cleaner than burning coal. Wood is particularly low in sulphur and I'll mention that the US moves low sulphur coal huge distances in a way that might seem crazy to people who are unaware of the costs of sulphur pollution or of pollution control equipment.

2. Companies in Europe were looking to source biomass from Tasmania. That definitely seems absurd. Why export woodchips all the way to Europe when right next door mainland Australia has one of the most coal intensive grids in the world? Well, the funny thing is it doesn't make sense to ship woodchips to mainland Australia. Mainland Australia can pretty much make all the woodchips it wants. Once woodchips have been loaded onto a ship it is more profitable to take them to Europe, or as is currently done, Asia. It doesn't even make economic sense to ship coal from Australia to Australia. For example, South Australia doesn't have cheap convenient deposits of coal, but despite this coal is not shipped in from other states. In the past natural gas (and oil) was cheap and now it isn't wind and solar power provide cheaper options. Once the coal is on a ship, taking it elsewhere is more profitable.

3. I think European biomass imports are unlikely to expand because of the decreasing cost of wind and solar power. Why build more biomass capacity if the alternatives have come down in price? But in the great scheme of things, given the rich wind and solar resources of Australia, Africa, and the Americas and the low cost of ocean transport; it may make sense for those regions to rely on wind and solar and export biomass to less well endowed and crowded Europe and parts of Asia.

Similarly, it will cost as much to ship a container of something from Chicago to Lagos as it does to get it the next 50km (rough estimate, but I those numbers are always a little up in the air).

If anyone is interested, here's an article that mentions how a UK power plant was able to reduce its sulphur emissions using biomass which enabled it to purchase high sulphur but cheap US coal, which isn't very popular in the US, and still remain within its sulphur emission limits:

The article also mentions the US coal was $65 dollars a tonne. It's probably less than that now as higher quality Australian coal is down to $69 a tonne.

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