If the EU is to comply with its proposed renewable energy targets, a well-developed strategy needs to be put in place to boost the deployment of all renewable energy technologies which are commercially viable. This is not trivial, as evidenced by the current shenanigans surrounding the forthcoming EU renewable energy directive. But one thing is clear – biomass needs to be regarded as one of the main pillars in this strategy.
This article aims to give an overview of the contribution that biomass is currently making to the European energy system, and the potential that we can realistically expect in the future.
Biomass plays a specific role amongst the renewable energy sources (RES), and is a vital part of the European effort to increase the deployment of climate-friendly energy sources. Biomass useage covers about two-thirds of all renewables in Europe, and is the fastest growing sector in absolute terms. Biomass is also important because it can offer a viable solution for every energy need.
The technology used to transform biomass to energy depends mainly on the form in which biomass is to be delivered as primary energy – and on the cost efficiency of the conversion technology. As such, many different conversion technologies are available to transform primary energy from biomass to heat, electricity or transportation fuels. Some of the existing technologies are already commercially competitive, while others are still at the development stage, but they will certainly play a more important role in the future as costs decrease and efficiency improves.
How has the EU used biomass to date?
In 2004 the Gross Inland Consumption (GIC) of renewables in Europe was 109.5 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe). 72.3 Mtoe – or 66% of this figure – came from biomass. To illustrate this another way, in 2004 the total GIC in Europe was 1747.2 Mtoe. This means that 4.13% of the total GIC in Europe came from biomass resources. It is therefore clear to see how important Biomass is to the energy system in the EU, and especially to the renewable energy sources sector.
The deployment of biomass in the EU Member States obviously differs considerably between countries. It depends amongst other things on the resources available, the population density, the development of the energy system in the past, and effective support schemes for biomass.
Latvia, for example, has the highest relative use of biomass – 31.13% – from its total GIC of 4.4 Mtoe; in absolute terms France is leading the way with 11.92 Mtoe out of its GIC of 270.6 Mtoe, but this actually corresponds to a relative biomass deployment of 4.4%.
Biomass can be used for all the energy needs of modern societies. But due to differing historical development and efficiency differences between countries, its contribution to the three main uses of energy is very unevenly distributed. From the 72.3 Mtoe used in 2004, 48.26 Mtoe corresponded to biomass for heat, 22.03 Mtoe to biomass for bioelectricity, and 1.98 Mtoe to liquid biofuels.
And biomass supply originates from different sources. 61.5 Mtoe was wood-based bioenergy; 3.5 Mtoe agricultural-based bioenergy; and 7.3 Mtoe was waste used for energy purposes.
The EU Biomass action plan
In 2005 the EU Commission adopted the EU Biomass Action Plan, a piece of legislation which aims to promote the deployment of biomass, and which contains concrete targets that need to be achieved by 2010. These targets are:
- 75 Mtoe biomass for heat;
- 55 Mtoe biomass for electricity;
- 19 Mtoe for transportation biofuels;
- 149 Mtoe of total biomass useage in 2010.
But if these ambitious targets are to be achieved, a number of political measures to boost the biomass energy sector will have to be adopted.
Issues to be addressed
The limiting factor for biomass is generally seen as the available land which can be used for biomass production. As a general rule for Europe, 0.16 hectares per capita is necessary to guarantee enough land for food production (this figure doesn't include the traditional import of protein feedstock from abroad). The total available arable land in Europe is about 109 million hectares – for a population of 489 million inhabitants. This means that for energy production, more than 30 million hectares of agricultural land is still available, mainly land which was used in the past for agricultural production for export, or set-aside land (see table 1, which shows EU countries with the highest bioenergy potential).
Table 1: Arable land per capita in the EU 27 in 2007
|Arable land (in Kha)||ha arable land per capita|| |
Arable land (in Kha)
|ha arable land per capita|
One of the current debates with regard to biomass as energy feedstock is the food vs. fuel debate i.e. do we have enough land to use for growing biomass feedstocks, instead of crops for food. The table above shows the arable land/capita. This is an important indicator for the bioenergy potential, because experience proves for Europe – given the traditional import of protein feedstock from abroad - that about 0.14 to 0.18 ha arable land per inhabitant is necessary to produce the required food.
It can be seen that the potential for bioenergy production differs widely from country to country. Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Denmark and the Baltic countries have a high endowment of arable land in relation to their population. If on average 0.16 ha arable land per capita is needed for food production, ca 30 Mha arable land would be available for energy production. (Source: Eurostat – statistical pocket book 2006 and Agriculture in the European Union, statistical and economic information 2005, February 2006, EU commission).
Biomass use is very unevenly distributed between the different Member States of the EU. The countries also have a varying potential for future use of biomass energy. The available forecasts to predict future availability of biomass are always based on a number of assumptions; for example the future sustainability of biomass production. According to a study undertaken by the European Environmental Agency, the potential for 2010 will be 187.95 Mtoe for the EU 27 (235.95 Mtoe by the year 2020). This again points to an underused potential of biomass in Europe as we stand today.
As well as the increased mobilisation of biomass from forests, agriculture and waste, a steadily growing amount of biomass will come from imports from other regions of the world. According to estimations made by the AEBIOM, this imported biomass will contribute 25 Mtoe to the biomass supply by 2020. Import of biomass is seen as reasonable when the energy density is high enough – the higher the energy density of the imported biomass, the higher the net CO2 reduction is when transporting of the biomass is taken into account. With this in mind, biofuels and pellets will contribute most to imports in the near future.
Biomass from forests will increase moderately by 20%-30%, compared with the increase in biomass from the agricultural sector. The agricultural sector will play the most significant role in supplying biomass in the future. This contribution will originate mainly from short rotation forest, perennial energy crops and energy grasses. These plants can deliver much more biomass feedstock per hectare than traditional crops or forests.
Improved breeding and management skills offer a potential for further improvements in plant yields. They can be used for transport biofuels, for direct combustion – to transform them to heat and electricity – or for biogas production. Short rotations forests may have a promising role to play, especially if the technologies to transform lignocelluloses to simple sugars can be improved in the near future. This would allow the complete plant to be converted into transport biofuels and would increase the per-hectare-yield considerably; at present only parts of the feedstock can be converted for biodiesel and bioethanol production.
Another factor which has to be taken into account in a debate surrounding future biomass potential, is the average yield in the different member states of the European Union. According to data from EUROSTAT, the average yields differ considerably. For example in 2005 the average yield for wheat in Belgium was 8.42 t/ha, whereas the average yield in Poland that same year was just 3.95 t/ha. Romania was just 2.97 t/ha.
These are countries with more or less similar climate and soil conditions. The difference in the average yields can be explained by the more sophisticated agricultural management techniques possible in countries like Belgium, in comparison with Eastern European countries that haven't yet fulfilled their potential. Improvements in agricultural management could deliver a significant amount of biomass supply, because in general these are countries with a high concentration of arable land.
Efficiency of biomass
The conversion efficiency of different biomass technologies varies widely. This fact leads to a conclusion that biomass should be used in the most efficient way.
Biomass for heat can reach conversion efficiencies of over 90%, and is therefore the most efficient way to use biomass. But this is exactly the sector with the lowest rate of growth in recent years. The use of biomass in combined heat and power plants (CHP) or in biogas plants reaches conversion efficiencies of between 50% and 90%, depending on the technology used. So these conversion paths also seem to be a very promising way to convert biomass to energy.
The production of 1st generation biofuels (mainly bioethanol and biodiesel) yield efficiencies of 55%-60% under optimal conditions, though this depends very much on the crop yield per hectare, and which crop is used as the feedstock for the biofuel production.
The least efficient ways to use biomass are for producing electricity – without heat recovery – or for 2nd generation biofuels, which currently have efficiency rates of between 25% and 40%. The latter has such low efficiencies mainly due to ill-conceived technological development, but in the long term 2nd generation biofuels promise much higher efficiency rates due to the fact that these technologies will use the complete plant as biofuel feedstock. This is in contrast to 1st generation biofuels, where only part of the plant is converted to biofuel.
Biomass is a scarce resource and the emerging conflict between land use for food production or for energy production, will increase in the future. In order to avoid wasting biomass, wise decisions need to be made. For example the use of biomass for heating is the most efficient way to transform biomass to energy. Therefore, political support for this sector should be increased – in many cases the higher initial investment costs of biomass heating devices are an important barrier, so incentives need to address this aspect.
The running costs of biomass are already cost competitive with fossil fuel heating devices, but in some cases the cost of biofuels are half the costs of fossil fuels. To overcome this obstacle of encouraging the use of biomass for heat, financial support for biomass heating systems is recommended. This would allow a restructuring of the heating system, as well as increase the use of biomass in the heating sector considerably.
As this article has shown the importance of biomass in the European energy sector cannot be understated. But there is still a high untapped potential for biomass to contribute to a sustainable energy system at European level. Future political measures should take into account the fact that biomass – compared to most other RES – is already cost efficient in many cases. Therefore, boosting the sustainable use of biomass is an economically advantageous way of reaching the EU's RES goals.
About the author:
Herwig Andreas Ragossnig is a bioenergy expert working for the European Biomass Association (AEBIOM).