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“Most people don't understand biomass…”

Sarah Robertson

Bioenergy has the potential to provide renewable heat, electricity and transport fuel the world over, but controversy has dogged the technology's development, especially in recent times. So what is the industry doing to redress this?

Sarah Robertson talks to international Bioenergy expert Professor Ralph Sims.

Despite challenges, many renewable energy proponents believe the case for bioenergy is compelling. On one level, the use of biomass for heat, electricity and fuel production is mature, with an extensive supply and demand chain that offers advanced and developing nations the opportunity to capitalise on waste residues for local and national use.

At the same time, Research and Development continues on developing the next generations of biofuels, with researchers developing bioenergy feedstocks that are more sustainable – such as municipal waste, fast growing non-food crops, and even Algae.

So called 2nd Generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol remain a holy grail that many are working towards.

But, believes Professor Ralph Sims, there is still considerable work to be done before biomass gasification technologies and second generation biofuels – which remove the need for biomass to be sourced from food ‘crops' become commercially viable.

Of second generation biofuels, he cautions that we need to be patient: “It's unlikely that second generation biofuels will be competitive for another five or 10 years,” he believes. “And then of course, they've got to be large scale plants to make them commercially viable from an economies-of-scale point of view, and that means they've got to have large areas of land to supply the feedstock all year round.”

But in the meantime, while we wait, the challenges facing the bioenergy industry are numerous.

Top of the list is the need for bioenergy to be seen as sustainable, and not conflict with the growing global demand for food crops.

Besides this, a slew of other challenges remain: Security of supply of biomass feedstock needs to be maintained over the long term; transport infrastructure needs to improve to ensure feedstock supply while not making the end product, again, unsustainable; and then there is the requirement for a more supportive political, legal and financial environment, which will allow the industry to be increasingly competitive with traditional sources of energy.

Sims believes the major issue today remains sustainability. And how to promote the industry, and its responsible face, to the public.

Sims believes it is the industry’s role to change negative, or uninformed, or uninformed perceptions about biomass development…

“Most people don't understand biomass,” he begins: “If people talk about renewable energy they immediately think of wind and they immediately think of solar, and then after a bit of thought some might think of hydro and then some might add geothermal on to that. Then biomass is sort of the poor cousin, if you like.”

The World Bioenergy Association has recently voiced similar concerns about the sector's visibility, with President Kent Nyström commenting on the lack of awareness of the enormous potential of bioenergy worldwide. Based on a report by the Department of Energy and Technology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), the estimated potential for bioenergy production in 2050 is 1,135 – 1,548 exajoules (EJ). With global energy consumption at over 500 EJ today and with the IEA projections revealing that this could reach well over 1,000 EJ in 2050, bioenergy's potential is clear.

Mandated renewable energy targets and fuel incentives have also pushed the development of the industry, particularly first generation biofuels in the U.S., Brazil and Europe (in fact the European Renewable Energy Council suggests that biomass is likely to contribute half the mandated 20 percent renewable energy target for Europe by 2020).

The challenge: becoming sustainable

Away from the industry itself it's no real surprise that the public hasn't engaged with bioenergy. Sustainability issues have plagued the industry for years, with the harvesting of woody biomass and the ‘food-versus-fuel’ debate the highest profile issues. But the industry has taken these issues seriously, and many studies have been conducted to investigate how biomass development can meet global energy demand in a sustainable way.

But what does ‘sustainable’ really mean in this context?

Several organisations have been developing sustainability criteria for bioenergy production, including the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP), the World Bioenergy Association (WBA), IEA Bioenergy and the International Organisation for Standardisation.

“Such guidelines are already having impacts on policy-makers, ensuring that local and imported biomass supplies are subjected to stringent resource analysis,” says Sims. He believes the GBEP, established by the Group of 8 + 5 in 2005, is in a strong position to co-ordinate the various activities internationally.

The GBEP brings together public, private sector and civil society stakeholders. In 2007, the partnership was given a mandate to “take forward the successful and sustainable development of bioenergy”. The GBEP Task Force on Greenhouse Gas Methodologies was established in October 2007, and in 2008 the GBEP Taskforce on Sustainability was established to develop a set of relevant, practical, science-based, voluntary criteria and indicators, as well as examples of best practice regarding the sustainability of bioenergy.

The partnership is focusing on reaching consensus on its sustainability criteria and indicators, and its GHG methodologies, with a view to starting the process of testing them in 2011.

According to the GBEP, the sustainability indicators are “designed to enable Governments to build their capacity to monitor, interpret and respond to the environmental, social and economic impacts of their bioenergy production and use.”

A WBA position paper on certification sustainability criteria, presented in December last year, suggests two main issues with bioenergy development that sustainability criteria can redress.

An internationally recognised certification would “ensure that the export of biomass and biofuels was not at the expense of the populations in the main source countries, or of ecosystems and environmental values,” it says.

Moreover, “sustainable production of biomass must be shown to not reduce production or availability of food, fibre and water, or of living space and living standards for rural and indigenous populations.”

However, Sims says that despite these efforts, public concerns remain about the use of biomass, and there is still much confusion over the popular definition of “sustainability”.

“It’s unlikely that second generation biofuels will be competitive for another five or 10 years…”

Therefore, “having international criteria in place would help bring greater clarity to both biomass suppliers and users, and avoid misinformation being imparted, especially through the media,” he says.

Improving public perception, therefore, is key to developing a sustainable industry, not only environmentally but one that can prosper in a competitive energy market.

Getting the message across

Sims believes it is the industry's role to change negative, or uninformed, perceptions about biomass development.

People remember the bad things about biomass that they read, he says. Liquid biofuels were severely criticised when world food prices went up in 2007, and a World Bank report claimed that biofuels were responsible for around 75 percent of the increase. However, late last year the organisation admitted that the impact of biofuels production in 2007 was actually only a 3–4 percent increase in retail food prices, the main factors being droughts, increased demand for protein and increased oil prices.

Regarding sustainability issues about land use, Sims suggests that a common view of the industry is that “if you're growing corn in the U.S. for fuel not food, then someone is cutting down rainforests in Brazil or Philippines in order to produce more food”.

That's possibly correct if the system is not managed properly, he maintains, “but at the moment it's all relatively uncertain as some extra food production comes from the ever-increasing crop yields, thereby possibly freeing up some land for growing energy crops – but nobody knows how much.”

Palm oil, he explains, has been criticised because people believe countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia are still cutting down rainforest. But he counters that Malaysia hasn't cut down rainforest for a long time and that the practice is reducing in Indonesia.

In addition, he says that “only 10 percent of this palm oil actually gets used for biofuels, and the rest of it is for edible purposes. So again, it's the biomass that has the poor image”.

Sustainable biomass in the mix

Improving the public image of bioenergy, therefore, goes hand-in-hand with the development and implementation of sustainability criteria. But developing these to be used globally is not trivial:

“Exactly how a biomass producer in rural Africa or China would be able to interpret sustainability guidelines is not clear,” Professor Sims points out. “However, attempting to develop a process for biomass in a similar manner to the certification of timber products is worth pursuing.”

Bioenergy, says Professor Sims, has a key role to play in a global energy future. He says the IPCC's Special Report on Renewable Energy, due out in May this year, reinforces this:

“Biomass has certainly got a high profile in this report,” he says. “Just trying to assess how much biomass there is in the world and how much there might be is very, very difficult because we don't know how many people are going to need feeding, and we don't know how the yields of food crops will increase, and we don't know how much marginal land we've got, and we don't know how climate change is going to impact on crop production and water supplies. And all of those things are going to have an impact on biomass production.

“But we do know, and this is pretty clear from the report, that we should use the biomass currently available from wastes and residues as efficiently as possible and use it for everybody's benefit.”


Sarah Robertson is the former editor of EcoGeneration, the Australian clean energy magazine. She covers environment and energy.

Renewable Energy Focus, Volume 12, Issue 1, January-February 2011, Pages 60-62

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Anumakonda said

27 June 2011
Bioenergy is one of the important energy in the future energy mix.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
Wind energy Expert

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