Biobased is not about money, is it?

August 2015

This is the English translation of a opinion feature  in a Dutch Newspaper. The Dutch version can be found here.


In the Netherlands we have a so called “top sector policy”, a selection of business sectors that the government supports, for several reasons but mainly for their economic export potential. Some sectors have a combined policy with other targets, like the energy- and biobased economy supported sector. For the last one, a plan was published, a road map, that should guide investments ( and subsidies).

The Netherlands will make steps in the biobased economy “, as the summary of the report starts. ”core issue is to take knowledge development as a starting point in themes where dutch business society sees chances in economic valuation via products or pilots .”

Economy can have a wide notion, it can refer to economy of materials use, what would be the right connotation in relation to biobased materials, but here is meant financial economy. ( Why not write that…) But this raises questions: Biobased, since when it was meant to earn money in the first place? So why not express that at least in the text, for instance as: For which environmental profit and financial profit can go hand in hand, or something similar. In that case the perspective remains just, and does not degrade to only money making. (I am sure you have examples in your own countries of this. )

Energy from biomass”, the report continues, “is on short term probably the only practical conceivable method to reduce greenhouse gas emissions . But by burning we destroy at the same time valuable resources for the chemical industry” .

The passage about destroying resources is correct, why should you destroy resources that, in say 50 years, still would have their current energy potential secured? (double profit therefor)

But why is the chemical industry the target , or the victim, of burned biobased materials? A chemical route is just a means, not a target? We have to develop the best biobased products for society, and the less treatment they require before application, the better it is..?

They can be applied in bulk in the buildings sector, without too much hassle. That will provide the most environmental profit, not via a chemical treatment route. The preference for a chemical route is a pure financial- economy driven route: It saves the traditional Building materials sector( not to introduce competitors) and provides the chemical world with a new toy. But that is not the environmental technical best route.

Besides energy, biomass flows also contains compounds that can serve as basic resource for materials” ,the road map continues. But biomass is at first already material, and not energy…? Then why name that after energy? Because they mean chemical treated mass, not the original value. The world is constantly put upside down this way.

Nevertheless, and despite all the wording about materials, the main focus for biomass is for energy. Its a completely technology driven ( and with that a financial economy driven) approach. Not about a reduction of environmental impact, or balancing resource use, Which was more or less confirmed in one of the meetings organized about the subsidy possibilities from this policy. Main focus in the discussions was on TRL: Technology Readiness Levels. A scale from 1-6 , and the closer to 6 the more close the technology is to the big money . Nothing wrong with that, if there would be a second indicator in play: like for instance the CLR: the CO2 reduction Readiness Level: to what level will the technology contribute to lowering the CO2 levels absolutely: without shifting the burden to other sectors. The reactions in the meeting where uncomfortably: one could here them thinking: “ He has a point, but destroys the fun..”.

When further reading I come up the phrase , “Nature converts solar energy into biomass via photo synthesis. This conversion has a low efficiency( about 1 %) The biobased agenda sees interesting possibilities to raise this efficiency. “

Unbelievable: its the adagio “we can beat nature” again . Why should we want to beat nature? The most important is with what environmental impact that efficiency is established: Nature does it in closed cycles balance . Can that be established as well with high tech approaches? A PV cell has an efficiency of say 14% but at the cost of material depletion and polluting processes. Is compensation of that incorporated? The answer is no. It has to come either way, at one side increase the efficiency, at another side the impact is increased.

It happens that our economical system is aimed at increasing what has financial economical value, and what is not financially valued to neglect and deplete. ( as such a ‘circular economy’, if meant a financial economy, is a impertinent assertion) gotspe)

therefore, I want to make a case for the bio-bulk approach. Which can establish large volumes , with direct environmental profit , without detour via high tech routes. Like hemp and flax, the direct use of wood in the building sector , even loam plaster as renewable resource ( as a constant eroding flux from erosion process) , and the development of compressed bamboo as construction material . ( which has up to three times the yield as wood per hectare, research ongoing but could use some financial support….)

The approach with biobulk has the highest TRL and CRL as well. And yes, I agree, the PRL, the Profit Readiness Levels, are somewhat lower. But this requires that policy will take responsibility and adapts the financial economical system in a way that the balance becomes even more profitable. Financial economy is in the end a human developed construct , that can be changed. In contrary to resource stocks and natures efficiency.

Ronald Rovers August 2015


Author: ronald rovers