Biomass: A quiet leader in renewable energy
Despite two thirds of all renewables in Europe coming from wood, waste and agricultural crops, the biomass sector is still struggling to find support from EU policymakers, especially when it comes to the crucial heating sector, industry group AEBIOM has announced.
- Biomass: making up two thirds of EU renewables
Presenting new statistics to the press on 13 September, AEBIOM boasted figures that dwarf other renewable energy sectors. "Among the renewable-energy sources biomass plays a specific role. It covers around two thirds of all renewables and is the fastest-growing sector in absolute terms," said Heinz Kopetz, president of AEBIOM.
"In the period from 1995 to 2004, the contribution of biomass to energy supply grew by 27.5 Mtoe, that is 78% of the total growth of RES and corresponds to an increase of 61% in nine years," he added. A large share of this production is coming from wood and byproducts of the forest industry (85%), whereas bio-waste (10%) and agriculture (5%) account for much less.
The group said that it expected to maintain this leadership position largely unchanged by 2020, when the EU is to meet its commitment to boost renewables to 20% of its energy mix. This, AEBIOM said, would come despite stronger expected annual growth rates in the wind sector, for instance. "Of course, wind energy will grow much faster," said Jean-Marc Josssart, AEBIOM secretary-general.
- Growth slower in heating sector
However, Josssart said that growth in the heating sector had been disappointing. For district heating alone, the share of biomass reaches only 1%, although a few countries such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Baltic countries and Austria have higher shares, "between 5 and 30%". "In 2005, in Europe, around 6 Mt pellets were used, roughly 50% for residential heating and 50% for thermal power plants," according to AEBIOM. However, the distribution is very uneven across EU countries. "95% of these pellets were used in only seven countries: Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austria," AEBIOM said.
Jossart explained that heating is crucial, as it is responsible for half of the EU's overall energy consumption.
"We would like more attention to heating in the forthcoming Commission proposals on renewables," he said, adding that the sector needed "long-term, stable support". And, according to Jossart, the sector is already competitive. "Biomass for heat does not need subsidies", he says, "only support in the heating systems."
A European fund for renewable heating (biomass, solar thermal, geothermal) could be set up to support these investments, AEBIOM argues. The fund could help build district heating systems running on biomass or assist with the installation of individual, highly efficient heating systems that use wood chips or pellets.
- Biofuels debate neglects the potential of biomass in other sectors
As the debate on the merits and drawbacks of biofuels heats up, AEBIOM is keen to stress that biomass is more efficiently used in other applications, such as heating.
"The efficiency in the conversion of biomass to final energy varies widely between different technologies. This efficiency can be above 90% (biomass to heat) and below 40% (biomass to electricity only, stand alone second-generation fuels)."
Speaking about the potential of biofuels, the group predicts that bioethanol and biodiesel "will remain the main biofuels until 2020". It says demonstration work on second-generation biofuels are important but that "a specific priority for second-generation fuels as compared to other biofuels is not recommended".
"Specific high yields per hectare can be attained by growing perennial energy crops such as miscanthus, short rotation coppices or energy grass used to produce combustibles or maize for biogas production".
Specifically, AEBIOM sees tremendous potential in biogas, as the energy output per hectare is higher than for ethanol, biodiesel or even second-generation biofuels. "Biogas as transportation fuel should be promoted considering the high yields per hectare," it argues.
The EU currently meets around 4% of its total energy needs with biomass, a relatively small share overall but one that makes the sector an undisputed leader in renewable energies, as it makes up 66% of all renewables produced in Europe (overall, renewable energies including biomass, wind, solar and others currently account for only about 6.3% of the EU's total energy consumption).
In December 2005, the European Commission presented a Biomass Action Plan that sought to double this share to 8% of the EU's energy mix by 2010.
In March 2007, the EU adopted a binding target to meet 20% of its energy needs from renewables. This overall objective includes a sub-target to cover 10% of transport fuel needs with biofuels, part of which will be supplied with biomass-based products coming from Europe.
- Dec. 2007: Commission to present proposal on how the EU is to meet its 20% renewable energy target by 2020.