Bioenergy: The local and truly green source of renewable energy

Maija Lepistö, Communications Officer at Bioenergy Europe, emphasises the importance of bioenergy in achieving clean energy targets.

Within our immediate environment lies an abundant source of organic material: biomass. This is the starting point for producing renewable energy from natural sources like wood and agricultural residues, here referred to as feedstocks. Modern technologies allow us to transform these materials into valuable fuels while maximising their energy potential and limiting emissions. Biomass can be further categorised into solid biomass, biofuels, and biogas, which includes residual wood from forests, agricultural crops and residues, by-products from the wood and agricultural industries, herbaceous and woody energy crops, municipal organic wastes and manure (and in the future potentially adding algae and marine biomass to the list).

Of all solid biomass materials, wood has always been the most popular in Europe. However, over the past few decades, the model of wood consumption has changed, moving away from the ‘log in the fireplace’ to new and efficient appliances like wood pellet boilers and stoves, as well as installations that are utilised on a large scale at the industrial level. In Europe, approximately 53% of bioenergy is consumed for industrial purposes, and 47% of consumption comes from individual users.

Maija Lepistö, Communications Officer at Bioenergy Europe

New technologies used to produce energy, power, and transport fuels are what defines modern bioenergy, and they include innovative solutions for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for long-term or permanent storage. This can be achieved through, for example, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or the production of biochar in combustion and industrial processes. These new and emerging technologies offer a chance for energy-intensive industries to effectively reduce their emissions – and are the only way forward to achieving negative emissions. Scaling up these technologies is a priority in order to achieve quick emission reductions and reach the European Union’s (EU) 2050 goals.

What is bioenergy?

Currently, bioenergy makes up 56.8% of the overall EU renewable energy mix, with 74.5% being used for heating, 13.5% for transport purposes and 12% for electricity. This makes bioenergy an essential renewable energy source, especially for residential and industrial heating purposes. With the increased use of intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which are both dependent upon weather conditions, the question of storability arises. As a dispatchable renewable energy source, bioenergy can help to create a level playing field with other renewables – and is therefore indispensable in future energy supply scenarios. Forecasts suggest that taking into consideration all sources of bioenergy, the amount of available bioenergy could even triple by 2050, according to IPCC scientists. To limit global warming to 1.5°C, scientific assessments from the research organisation IEA Bioenergy predict that the biomass supply will need to double. Bioenergy, therefore, plays an essential role in achieving this climate scenario.

© shutterstock/FabrikaSimf

Growth of the biomass industry

The potential for sector growth is remarkable, with biomass from agricultural practices, namely agro-biomass, being expected to grow the most by 2050. There is significant untapped potential in agro-biomass, including through the valorisation of residues and by-products, as well as the cultivation of energy crops on abandoned and marginal lands. Scientific studies estimate that over 100 million dry tonnes of herbaceous agricultural residues (e.g. cereal straw, maize residues) and 12.5 million dry tonnes of woody agricultural pruning (from olive groves, fruit orchards and vineyards) could be sustainably mobilised in Europe and used to generate bioheat.

Given the ongoing energy crisis and inflation, demand for affordable and reliable solutions has sharply increased. As witnessed at the political level, the debate over how to speed up a greater share of renewables in the energy mix has become more pressing than ever. New solutions should be supported and implemented as quickly as possible without any excessive administrative burden. At the same time, we can see how existing domestic solutions, such as sustainable bioenergy, have become more desirable during this crisis, because consumers want to independently supply themselves with renewable fuels which are locally available and cheaper than fossil options.

Bioenergy’s role in achieving energy security

Bioenergy represents an important solution for guaranteeing energy security in the EU, since its dependency on imports is very low, with only 4.3% of biomass that is consumed in the EU being imported from trusted streams. The bioenergy sector is also a frontrunner in the local production of specialised equipment, and it continuously develops new – while improving existing – technologies thanks to a strong R&D branch. Considering the local availability of feedstock, the production of equipment and the investments in research, the bioenergy sector creates almost as many jobs (direct and indirect via the forestry and agricultural sectors) as all other renewable energy sectors combined. The production of bioenergy (e.g. pellets and wood chips) has increased by 5% in 2021, as compared to 2020. The sector is well-established as a trusted source for delivering decentralised and locally produced energy, with over 50.000 businesses across the EU, the majority of which are SMEs. These businesses contribute to the EU’s economic growth with an annual turnover of over €49.5m in 2020.

The war in Ukraine has, in some ways, accelerated the fuel-switch to biomass-based solutions for many types of consumers across the EU. Individuals have switched to biomass-based heating appliances, while municipalities and villages have developed district heating networks to supply both public buildings, like schools and city halls, and individual households with renewable heat. On top of this, entire countries, for example Lithuania, have reshaped their energy security strategies to significantly reduce their dependence on Russian gas. Over the past several years, this Baltic state increased the use of biomass for district heating to 75%, which means that today around 80% of households and one third of the industrial sector use biomass-based fuels for heating purposes. The use of sustainable bioenergy has also reduced the country’s CO2 emissions by 70%, all the while the fuel-switch has lowered costs for consumers.

To ensure that the biomass sector can accelerate at the required rate for satisfying demand for cleaner energy, sustainable production needs to be ensured. The Renewable Energy Directive sets out sustainability criteria for producing bioenergy, which makes it the only type of energy with mandatory and strict criteria throughout its value chain. If we want to deliver on the climate targets and to limit global warming to 1.5°C, legislation must, on the one hand, ensure environmental protection and, on the other hand, be supportive of renewable solutions and not hinder their development and growth. When developing new legislation, consistency with existing energy, climate and environmental laws should be carefully and properly considered. New sustainability criteria should always be properly impact-assessed in order to maximise benefits without hindering the development of a thriving European industry.

Woody biomass

As mentioned before, it is important to remember that most of the biomass used today in the EU is woody biomass. This biomass comes from sustainable forest management practices, which are necessary for preventing fires and controlling pests. Forests are more and more under pressure due to climate change, which is why removing excessive residues and pest-infected wood is necessary. Other sources for woody biomass being used for energy are residues coming from the wood-based industries. We cannot forget that the circular bioeconomy is based on manufacturing products from renewable raw materials, which are utilised in the most efficient way in terms of material use. Once these medium- and long-lived products come to the end of their life cycle, they contribute to our society in the form of renewable energy.

By using bioenergy, we also avoid those emissions from fossil fuels that are not compensated for and released into the atmosphere. Bioenergy operates within a closed carbon cycle, which means that biomass used for energy through combustion emits carbon that was captured and stored in trees beforehand and will be recaptured through forest regrowth. Over the last 30 years, the use of residues from the forestry sector and the woodworking industry has become more efficient, meaning that fewer trees are being harvested but more energy is being produced. With bioenergy’s contribution to the EU’s energy mix having almost tripled, the amount of wood used to produce that bioenergy has remained stable. Thanks to well-established synergies with other sectors, and to the benefit of local production and availability, bioenergy will remain an essential part of the EU’s energy mix.

What needs to change?

Bioenergy Europe, a trade association with a focus on solid biomass, sees big discrepancies between what is happening on the ground across Europe, where sustainable bioenergy contributes to energy security and independence, and the ongoing decision-making at EU level that is out of touch with reality. The association believes that promoting the replacement of old and polluting heating systems with modern, renewable appliances (such as state-of-the-art biomass boilers) should also be one of the priorities when working on new regulations concerning renewable energy and climate protection. To achieve this, policymakers must provide financial support to consumers and ensure a just energy transition.

Promoting EU energy independence, by relying more on local, sustainable, and affordable solutions like bioenergy, is the appropriate course of action given the ongoing war in Ukraine and the energy crisis. Finally, investment in, and swift implementation of, new carbon removal technologies that are necessary for achieving the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals need to be strongly supported. There should be no competition among the various renewables because each technology is necessary and has its own role to play in truly decarbonising the EU’s energy system. The real fight is against global warming and the challenge is ending Europe’s energy reliance on fossil fuels and on those who provide it.

Maija Lepistö

Communications Officer

Bioenergy Europe

Please note, this article will also appear in the thirteenth edition of our quarterly publication.

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