Efficiency vs. biomass smackdown
This post was written by Clark Williams-Derry, who’s on vacation.
An interesting contrast.
The NW Current is reporting that, even with rising prices for fossil fuels, biomass electricity projects — using, say, wood waste or sewage solids — are having trouble penciling out. Between capital and fuel costs, it’s still cheaper to generate electricity from fossil fuels than from biomass.
Meanwhile, energy-efficiency programs are wildly successful, oversubscribed — and in Oregon, cost about 1.3 cents per kilowatt hour saved, which is a massive bargain. Says Energy Trust’s executive director, Margie Harris:
Energy efficiency is the most cost-effective resource — half the cost of new generation … There’s more to be acquired if it were the wish of the Oregon Legislature for us to go after it.
In the perfect world — one in which fossil fuels were taxed to cover all of their external costs (pollution, global warming, security vulnerabilities, etc.) — then biomass electricity might be a bit more competitive with coal and natural gas. But in that world, efficiency would be an even better deal than it already is. Efficiency would still beat biomass electricity, hands down.
And not just on the economic merits; efficiency is by far the most environmentally benign option as well. In a way, efficiency is like the first (and most important) part of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra; biomass is like the third (and least important) step.
I still think biomass electricity projects are worth the effort, at least at a small scale. We’ll undoubtedly learn some important things as we experiment with them. But given how much cheaper efficiency is — and the huge amount of cost-effective conservation ripe for the picking — where my money’s concerned, I’ll choose efficiency over biomass any day.