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Biomass: The World's Biggest Provider Of Renewable Energy

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

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  • Apr 23, 2014

Biomass and Renewables

If I asked you to think of renewable energy what comes to mind? I imagine it is skyscraper-sized wind turbines, solar panels on suburban roofs or massive hydro-electric dams. You probably do not think of burning wood or converting crops to liquid fuel to be used in cars. Yet throughout the world bio-energy remains the biggest source of renewable energy. In fact its growth in the last decade has been greater than or similar to that from wind and solar in most places, and those places include the European Union and the United States of America.

Biogas Production in Denmark

Europe: A Reversal Of History

The Industrial Revolution was fundamentally an energy transition from burning biomass, mostly wood, to burning coal. Despite being called a revolution this was a rather protracted affair. America did not get the majority of its energy from coal until the 1880s, while China and India remained predominantly biomass powered until the 1950s and 1960s. And many countries, or regions within countries, still remain highly dependent on energy from biomass.

This transition from burning biomass to burning coal occurred first in Europe. By the mid-eighteenth century England was getting most of its energy from coal, and by the mid nineteenth century biomass was in long term decline in Western Europe. However this decline did not start until the mid-twentieth century in Eastern Europe.

EU historic biomass

(Data source: Fernandez et al. 2007)

This long term trend however has been reversed, and biomass is now seeing some form of renaissance in Europe. The reason for this is simple: renewable energy targets, and subsidies.

In 2007 the European Union decided that it should get 20% of its final energy consumption from renewables by 2020. However looking at the available options countries quite clearly decided that wind and solar were not ready to be scaled up to the desired level that quickly. They turned to the oldest form of energy available: biomass.

Despite what many perceive, the renewable energy target has, so far, lead to a far bigger expansion of bio-energy than wind and solar energy. In 2000 biomass was by a significant margin the biggest source of renewable energy, and made up more than half of final energy consumption in the EU. As the graph below shows this dominance of biomass was still very much the case 11 years later.

RenewableEnergyMixEU (27 countries)

The inclusion of hydro-electricity in the graph above is merely an obligation. Most EU countries have stopped building any hydro-electric capacity, so its growth over this period was essetnially zero. The same holds for geothermal energy. Growth of renewable energy since 2000 therefore only really came from three energy sources: wind, solar and biomass.

In percentage terms the two energy sources that saw the most rapid growth were wind and solar. This is unsurprising, given their low starting point. However in absolute terms biomass is the clear winner. Between 2000 and 2011 biomass grew by 49 million tonnes of oil equivalent (toe). Wind and solar only grew by 13 and 6 million toe respectively. In other words the absolute growth of biomass was 2.5 times greater than in wind and solar, and so far the majority of new renewable energy since 2000 has come from biomass, not wind and solar.


Biomass is also the biggest source of renewable energy, on a final energy consumption basis, in all but two EU countries. The exceptions are Cyprus and Ireland. Denmark may get 30% of its electricity from wind farms, but it still gets more than twice as much of its final energy consumption from biomass than from wind farms.

Biomass In Germany

The supposedly rapid expansion of solar power in Germany gets a lot of attention. The even more rapid expansion of biomass however has received absolutely no attention. Final energy consumption from biomass grew by 16 million tonnes of oil equivalent between 2000 and 2011, while wind and solar grew by 3.4 and 2.1 million toe respectively. Absolute growth of biomass in Germany has therefore been three times higher than for wind and solar combined.


The increase in bio-energy in Germany has taken many forms. For example wood-chip heating systems have grown massively since 2000. In a decade Germany went from burning almost no wood-chips for heating to burning 1.2 million tonnes each year.

Germany also now gets a significant portion of its electricity from bio-energy. In 2013 bio-energy was used for almost 7% of its electricity production, higher than that from solar PV and just short of that from wind power. Electricity generation from bio-energy receives approximately 4.5 billion Euros in subsidies each year, 30% more than is received by onshore wind in Germany.

The production of bio-energy is also now a significant form of land-use in Germany. According to official statistics a total of 2 million hectares is devoted to crop-based biofuels. This is 17% of arable land and approximately 6% of total land in Germany. Yet it only produces around 2% of Germany’s total energy consumption, a remarkably inefficient use of land


However wood, not crop-based biofuels, is the biggest source of bio-energy in Germany. A total of 53 million cubic metres of wood is used each year for energy generation, which is 41% of the total annual German wood harvest. This corresponds to approximately 4% of Germany’s total energy consumption, a figure that has more than doubled in the last decade.

This then is a rather different picture of the renewables revolution happening in Germany.

The United States: a similar theme

Here was the position in the United States in 2000: almost all renewable energy came from hydro-electricity and biomass. Biomass provided 49.2%, while hydro-electricity provided 46%. Of that provided by biomass 76% was from wood, 17% was from waste and only 7.8% was from liquid biofuels. Negligible quantities were derived from geo-thermal, solar and wind energy.


However the early 21st-century saw the mass-subsidisation of corn ethanol and today almost half of bio-energy comes from liquid biofuels. The conversion of food crop into fuel is nothing new. Rudolf Diesel ran some of his earliest engines on crop-based fuels. However the scale of the conversion of corn into fuel in the United States in the last decade and a half is something new. In 1980 only 0.7% of US corn consumption was used for producing fuel. By 2000 this percentage had reached 8%, but last year it reached an astonishing 43%.

Between 2000 and 2013, total growth of renewable energy consumption from liquid biofuels was almost identical to that from wind and solar combined. Liquid biofuels grew by 1768 trillion Btu, from 233 to 2001 trillion Btu, while wind and solar combined grew by, 1820 trillion Btu, from 95 to 1915 trillion Btu.

In the 21st-century growth in US renewables was essentially restricted to the three previously mentioned energy sources: liquid biofuels, wind energy, and solar energy. As in Europe, there was practically no new hydro-electricity capacity and very little new geothermal capacity.

This then is where the US was last year. Biomass still provides almost half of renewable energy, but now provides almost two times more than any other source of renewable energy.


As in Europe the land required to produce liquid biofuels is significant. Last year a total of 95 million acres was used to produce corn. This produced 14 billion bushels of corn, of which 5 billion were used for corn ethanol production.

So approximately 140,000 square kilometres of America is now used to produce corn ethanol, which is 1.4% of American land. However based on official government statistics only 1.1% of US primary energy consumption comes from corn ethanol.

Future Prospects

Fundamental physical realities mean that there is an upper limit to how much of our energy consumption can come from biomass. This is made clear by considerations of power density. Power density is an energetic analogy with that of crop yield. But instead of tonnes per hectare we work in watts per square metre. Typical biomass energy sources provide us with less than 0.5 watts per square metre. In the case of corn ethanol it is around 0.2 watts per square metre.

These power densities of energy production can then be compared with the power density of energy consumption. In many densely populated affluent economies, such as the UK, Germany and Japan, this is above 1 watt per square metre. In other words powering these economies purely with biomass will require more than two times more land than they have.

A similar calculation can be made with corn ethanol in the US. Moving to 100% corn ethanol would require a land mass of roughly the size of the US to be converted over to corn ethanol, a very unlikely prospect.

Physical realities therefore mean that it is implausible that bio-energy can provide anywhere close to the majority of the energy needs of affluent economies.

And whether the large-scale expansion of bio-energy is desirable is increasingly questionable. The expansion of corn ethanol and bio-diesel around the world has lead to a significant diversion of cropland over to biofuel production. Some commentators have referred to this a “crime against humanity,” a perhaps justifiable claim given the potential impact this has had on global food prices.

Similarly the environmental benefits of biomass are increasingly in doubt. The expansion of cropland to accomodate liquid biofuels production has almost certainly resulted in large amounts of de-forestation, and the carbon released during this has quite probably offset whatever emissions are supposed to be saved by the biofuels in the first place.

Liquid biofuels also have very problematic energy returns on investment. If you want to grow crops you will need to dump fertilizers on fields and these fertilizers are produced using fossil fuels. For these and other reasons the carbon dioxide used to produce corn ethanol may not be that much different from the carbon dioxide emissions they apparently save.

Environmental groups are also increasingly opposed to the large-scale expansion of bio-energy. A recent report from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace suggested that getting electricity from burning wood may be worse than getting it from coal. And there is now an ongoing argument between many British environmental groups and some renewables lobby groups over the issue. Subsidies and mandates for liquid biofuels are also now routinely opposed by many environmental NGOs.

“Advanced” biofuels however may solve some of these problems, or they may not. And a recent report claims that cellulosic biofuels may become cost-competitive – there is always a report saying a technology will become cost-competitive by a particular date – by 2016. The recent IPCC WG3 report on climate change mitigation also gave what could be called a  qualified thumbs-up to both large-scale bio-energy and bio-energy with CCS.

These forms of energy conversion therefore may become a vital part of our attempts to combat climate change. However whether they will, or whether we should even try, ought to be a matter of important debate.


1. EU renewable energy statistics come from Eurostat.

2. US renewable energy statistics come from EIA.

3. EU statistics are in terms of final energy consumption, whereas US statistics are in terms of primary energy consumption. I explained the difference between these in a recent article. I use the units used by the official statistical bodies. In the US case it is the British Thermal Unit, which Americans continue to use in an ironic post-colonial fashion.

4. Estimates for European biofuel use from 1850-2000 are taken from Fernandez et al. 2007. These statistics are in tonnes of biomass, so are not directly comparable with the other measures.

5. US total energy consumption statistics are taken from EIA.

6. US corn acreage and corn use statistics are from USDA here and here respectively. Once again we have units that are scientifically indefensible, but things are what they are.

7. German electricity production statistics can be found here. It’s in German, but the German for biomass is biomasse.

8. Vaclav Smil’s primer on power density is an excellent introduction to the spatial requirements of energy generation.

9. The inability of bio-energy to power industrial civilizations is explained in depth in E.A Wrigley’s excellent book “Energy and the English Industrial Revolution.”

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Apr 23, 2014

Excellent summary, Robert. Thanks. As with any summary some nit-picking commenters want to try add 2 cents worth.

First, the industrial revolution gave us steel. Widespread burning of biomass in steel containers is actually a rather recent development.

Second, many concerns are emerging with the use of crop residues as biomass. Soil carbon is rapidly depleting. But that really leads to questions regarding the use of farm chemicals that sterilize the soil so nothing rots anyway.

Third, by enhancing coal and gasoline combustion efficiency, what do we gain (if anything) from biofuels?

Fourth, what carbon capture value might biology offer?

This is a very big, complex issue. Bio-materials are easy to dismiss, and not so easy to dismiss. Thanks again.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Apr 23, 2014

Blandin Foundation is a Finnish wood products company with large Minnesota, USA involvement. When a delegation from Minnesota visited Finland they were impressed how well maintained the forests were and technology used.

In Minnesota you can’t even walk in the forest it is so tangled with mess. Finland can use post-processing wood waste, we can use pre-processing waste. We have a problem here.

Thanks for the interesting link.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Apr 23, 2014

Forestry byproducts, of course, are already used relatively extensively for bio-energy. If you are a timber manufacturer then you will always have some waste wood lying around that can just burn to get some energy in your factory. Waste however is not particularly scalable. And it is also desirable to cut down on waste in production. There is still reasonable room to move in most manufacturing to cut down on waste, so it is dififcult to see by-products going very far.

Sugarcane in Brazil offers much higher power density than corn ethanol for example. It’s almost an order of magnitude greater. However less than 2 watts per square metre is still problematically low, and it is far from clear if the deforestation that results from sugarcane production does not offset the emissions saved.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Apr 23, 2014


Is it worth converting biomass to methane for distribution in the existing natural gas infrastructure?

Methane stores reasonably well. Natural gas is stored today, and is starting to be used as a transportation fuel.


Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Apr 23, 2014


The evidence that sugarcane actually reduces emissions is questionable. See for example this PNAS paper on the indirect emissions that result from deforestation.

This is the fundamental problem. All crop based biofuels require the use of agricultural land. So where does this land come from? Well, it requires us cut down some trees. Unless people can rigorously demonstrate that a particular biofuel does not have massive indirect emissions then it is unwise promoting it through government subsidies or fiats.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Apr 23, 2014


I do not recognise the importance of “technology plateaus” because I have no idea what they are. How can a technology plateau result in innovation? Do you know the meaning of the word plateau?

And you really should provide an actual example to illustrate what the following sentence means once you get past the fancy language.

“In energy transitions there are always technological plateaus and then breakthroughs that enable greater efficiencies and in rare instances ecosystem services that become a part of the energy paradigm. “

Cellulosic ethanol also appears to run into the same problems as corn ethanol. Low power density is just as much of a problem. And just this week a major study in Nature Climate Change calls into question whether cellulosic ethanol can actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Apr 24, 2014

“And just this week a major study in Nature Climate Change calls into question whether cellulosic ethanol can actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” I have not read that study, but did see reference to it, and Prof. David Tilman of the U. of MN. was named.

I met Prof. Tilman at a visit by Nowegian scientists to the U. about a decade or so ago. He gave a lecture advocating “hay crop biofuel.” Having advocated the same decades before, I asked him how he had the courage to challenge big corn.

The world is mostly grassland, and needs sod to protect water and soil, and now store carbon. Grass needs to be eaten or mowed. Ruminants that eat grass are notoriously inefficient food sources. Hay is the only farm crop not processed. Separating the food from the fiber in hay has more global potential than big corn wants people to hear. I’m glad Prof. Tilman and others are still giving biofuel alternatives a chance.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 24, 2014

Robert, a while back the U.S. pork industry initiated an ad campaign characterizing its product as “The Other White Meat”. Stuck with a sinking image of red meat, it was an attempt to portray pigs as 700-pound chickens sans wings, and from a sales perspective it was fairly successful.

Similarly, we’re being sold biomass as “the other renewable”, despite the fact it’s only renewable in timeframes of anywhere from a year to centuries. Not surprisingly, the centuries-old variety (dark meat?) has the most energy stored within, and the chemical processes which liberate it are mostly indistinguishable from those of oil.

If the industry was a little more forthcoming, they would include a 24-point asterisk next to any characterization of biomass as “renewable”. It needs a lot of processing to turn it into something you can pour into a tank; its supply is limited, and burning it outright generates enough harmful airborne crap to make gasoline look like Evian.

Should the industry need a slogan, I’d propose “Tomorrow’s Oil” – although that might not survive the first round of consideration.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Apr 24, 2014

Nobel Laureate in the relevant field of biophysics, Dr. Hartmut Michel, has been explaining the nonsense of biofuels for years.

Biofuels of any kind are no solution to either climate change or energy security. They are worse than a solution. Those who promote biofuels need to seen as either being honestly mistaken, or as being employees of  agro-industry lobby groups who have no intention to promote sustainability, energy security or anything like that. They are simply out to harvest subsidies by fostering an illusion of sustainability and ‘innovation’.

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on Apr 24, 2014

Robert, This is an excellent, well-written, documented article. I had no idea that growth of biomass energy in Germany was triple that of wind and solar.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Apr 24, 2014


The subsidies part is even more surprising. But I guess meeting renewables targets while placating the agricultural lobby is a smart move politically.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Apr 24, 2014


Can you please make an effort to edit your comments. This stuff is very difficult to read.

And what is this?

“Normal 0 0 1 251 1432 11 2 1758 11.0 0 0 0”

These badly edited lengthy comments really take up far too much space in the discussion. Please tidy up your comments for the benefit of other readers.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 25, 2014

Willem, the numbers you’re seeing are most likely due to writing your comments first in MS Word, then pasting from that into TEC. Word adds copious amounts of “invisible” formatting information (font size, style, etc.) along with the text you’re seeing, which online forums often have difficulty interpreting.

The best way to get consistent results is to use TEC’s own text editor, a web utility called TinyMCE, to compose your response. Click on the link below the entry box where it says Input format, select Full HTML, and you’ll see a wide range of formatting tools you can use to enhance your posts/replies. There’s even a Paste from Word option, although it doesn’t always work that well, and you really need to know HTML to have much success at posting tables of information (sometimes posting a link to an online image of the table is possible). Unfortunately the Input format link is not available when you respond to the original article – I don’t know why. You have to post your comment, then edit it to add formatting.

If you’d rather write your comments in your own editor first, use a plain text editor like Microsoft Notepad.

More info:

Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Apr 25, 2014

The first time I heard this argument was when one of my relatives was concerned that Great Smoky Mountain National Park didn’t harvest dying trees, but rather let them rot in place.  I tried to explain that the dying trees were an important part of the ecosystem: food for some birds, holes for animal and bird nests, etc. A snag (standing dead tree) is actually a pretty lively place, ecologically speaking. When the trees fell, they enriched the soil and were nurse-logs to other trees.  Etc. Etc.

My relative wasn’t buying my explanation.  PEOPLE could use those trees, by golly, and people should!

There’s an echo of my relative in this comment. This comment seems to imply: “The forest might be dying, so let’s just kill it and get some use out of it!” 

To me, the argument that the forest is stressed and would take a long time to recover is an argument against heavy harvesting. “The forest is stressed” is not an argument for accelerated harvesting.  At least, that is my opinion.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Apr 26, 2014

Thanks Joshua

I quoted power density of biofuels in the context of their physical limitations. Comparing their power densities with other energy sources is a separate issue to that discussed.

Power densities of various renewables have been discussed a few times by me on this site. I would also caution anyone against thinking putting solar panels on urban school roofs will get us very far. Dense cities place limits on rooftop solar as I discussed in the piece below:


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Apr 27, 2014

My thoughts exactly!

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Apr 27, 2014

Resorting to (and then enhancing) ancient energy harvesting techniques is NOT a necessary part of the energy transition. Biofuels lead to deforestation, decreased soils health, increased pesticide usage?, and worst, an inefficient use of land in a more technologically advanced world. Consider that 1/10th energy input + sand + silicon (solar) “harvests” at least an order of magnitude of energy in the end. Furthermore, burning biofuels most always leads to the usual 2/3rds to 3/4th losses to inefficiency.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Apr 27, 2014


I provide links at the bottom to all data sources used.



Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Apr 27, 2014

This is all explained on the EIA and Eurostat website if you look through them. I’m too busy to go through it.

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