Monday, August 26, 2013

No Money In Mallorca's Biomass

The irony is not lost. Mallorca imports waste from Europe and incinerates it at Son Reus. Italy, a country which sends its waste to Mallorca, creates clean energy using woody biomass that is exported from Mallorca.

In January last year I wrote about the potential to use biomass as part of a programme of renewable energy in Mallorca. The Balearic Government was talking about upping its renewables game by investing three million euros (not a huge amount) on renewables installations, an investment in accordance with a national government wish to raise the contribution of renewables to energy sources to 20% by 2020. Biomass was spoken of as one of these sources in Mallorca. Over 11,000 homes could be served by biomass energy, or so it was said.

The forests of Mallorca possess a great deal of biomass. They possess rather less than they did now that parts of the Tramuntana and the Llevant nature park have gone up in flames, but there is still a good deal to go round and to go to Italy.

Various reasons have been given as to why the Tramuntana fire spread as widely as it did. One of these was that the forest is not sufficiently well maintained, which means that the ground is not attended to well enough. It is littered with woody debris, which burns an absolute treat but which burns as a better treat when it is put to productive purpose. 

It is idealistic to believe that a renewable like biomass could be anything more than a small contributor to overall energy sources. It comes at a cost, and one cost is that of its gathering. But this doesn't seem to deter the operation which does gather biomass and which ships it for use in Sardinia where there is an altogether greater premium placed on ecological energy than there is in Mallorca. Indeed, there is an altogether greater commitment to producing clean energy in Italy than in Spain, despite what the government might say. And as the national government has cut support for renewables, then whatever commitment there was has been diminished.

Between them, Mallorca and Menorca exported 7,000 tons of biomass last year. Productive use in the Balearics stands at less than one out of every ten tons of biomass that is retrieved, and there are very few examples of productive use; one is in Sant Antoni in Ibiza. This is not a project operated by Tirme, the GESA-led coalition of companies that has a monopoly on waste management and recycling in Mallorca and which needed the waste imports to help pay for its Son Reus incineration plant. Tirme accept that biomass is highly adaptable as an energy source but that without governmental support, unlike in Italy, its cost is too great; collection and production would outstrip its return. It's not profitable, therefore.

Although the biomass in the mountain forests is a natural resource and one which, through its very nature, is free, it isn't of course free. The Tramuntana fire reminded everyone of the fact that vast areas of the mountains are in fact privately owned. This ownership came up as an issue when the mountain range was awarded its World Heritage status. It was all well and good talking about opening up the mountains to more tourism, but what about rights and permissions to access private land?

Criticisms of the regional government's environment ministry that the lack of forest maintenance contributed to the fire overlook what is a more complicated situation than simply saying that gangs of workers should be packed off into forests in order to clear the debris and the biomass. The complication comes, in part, because of ownership. These owners have, in turn, been criticised for themselves not having looked after their forests, but then what incentives do they have to do better? One could argue that they shouldn't need incentive and that they have a duty to maintain the forests properly, but this is too simplistic a view.

Were there a genuine incentive, i.e. in the form of payment for the biomass, then the forests might at least be in a better state and might be less vulnerable to devastating wildfires, but such payment needs balancing, and, or so it would seem, the use of this biomass is just not profitable.

It seems crazy that there are tons of a potential energy source lying around in Mallorca's forests doing nothing more than being ripe for adding fuel to fires. It seems crazy that, at a time when environmental concerns are being raised about the extension of a different energy source - the gas pipeline to Alcúdia's power station - that a more benign source is being neglected. But this is so often the story with renewables. They have much to offer but they don't make money.

Any comments to please.


Shane Green said...

Hi Andrew,

I've just come across your article when trying to research the potential for installing a domestic biomass boiler for a house in Mallorca. I agree with you that the economics of collecting waste wood from Mallorcan forests and then shipping it to Sardinia to be burnt as biomass is insane. But I'd take the opposite view to yourself about the reason for that insanity. It only because the Sardinian government are giving a 30% subsidy to this activity that it's taking place. One of the commercial spokesmen said " it's like getting the transport for free'. Sadly it's not, it's being paid for by the sardinian tax payer or maybe via some EEC eco fund. As a consequence it undermines the economic case for using this material on Mallorca. It's another classic case of the unintended consequences of government intervention. So rather than seeking new government subsidy in Mallorca I'd rather see it curtailed in Sardinia.



andrew said...

Hello Shane. Good point. The subsidy has echoes of the Spanish Government's subsidies for green energy, especially solar. They have cost a fortune and added to the massive energy tariff deficit and so now to the ludicrous solution of taxing domestic photovoltaic panels.