Germany to use controversial biomass amid energy crisis

Germany's farmers' association known as the DBV also favours such an expansion but believes the measures laid out in the Easter package do not go far enough. [Shutterstock]

Biomass will be used to meet particularly high energy demands, according to the German government’s so-called “Easter Package”, which aims to use agricultural raw materials for energy production in response to the war in Ukraine. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The Easter Package for expanding renewable energies said that the promotion of biomass is to be “more strongly focused on highly flexible peak load power plants”.

The new measures were presented by Economic and Climate Minister Robert Habeck on Wednesday (6 April).

By amending the Renewable Energy Sources Act known as EEG, the German government wants to ensure bioenergy is used in situations where demand for energy is particularly high so that basic supplies from less flexible energy sources can be supplemented in the short term.

The package also said that “bioenergy should increasingly play to its strengths as a storable energy source that serves the system”. However, the difficulty of storing solar and wind is a major obstacle to the further development of renewable energies.

While this means that biomass will play an important role in the future to offset the weaknesses of other energy sources, a more targeted use is probably also intended to keep the total amount of biomass burned in check.

Accordingly, the German government wants to use “the limited resource biomass” in the future specifically “in areas that are difficult to decarbonise, such as transport and industry”.

Energy independence vs food security

“In this way, the best use can be made of valuable and scarce biomass for the overall system,” Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir said in a statement.

The plans are a compromise solution to the use of biomass, long seen as controversial yet rendered increasingly necessary due to the energy shortages caused by the Ukraine war.

Those in favour of using biomass as an energy source argue that production must now be ramped up to avoid dependence on Russian gas imports.

The European Commission, for instance, has doubled its targets for the expansion of domestic biogas production as part of the “REPowerEU” plan published in early March to make Europe’s energy system more resilient.

Germany’s farmers’ association, the DBV, also favours such an expansion but believes the measures laid out in the Easter package do not go far enough.

“Although biogas is more urgently needed for the security of supply than ever before, the EEG proposal slows down agricultural biogas production,” said DBV Secretary General Bernhard Krüsken.

According to a statement by the German Bioenergy Association, the government’s draft leaves “the potential of bioenergy (…) to reduce the need for imports of fossil fuels unused”.

However, those typically critical of biomass are bending their principles and calling for the energy source to now primarily be used for food production, not for agrofuels. The loss of supplies from Ukraine and Russia and the reduction of arable land are what made them become more flexible.

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Biomass as a precious commodity

Johann Rathke of the environmental organisation WWF told EURACTIV Germany that food production and the protection of climate-friendly and biodiverse fallow land must take priority over agrofuel production.

In view of possible food shortages in parts of the world due to the Ukraine war, food production must be strengthened, Rathke added.

Instead of converting fallow organic land back into arable land, the existing arable land should be used more for food production instead of animal feed and biogas, the WWF expert said.  A similar proposal is currently being discussed at the EU level.

According to him, it is rather unproblematic, however, wherever biogas is used without additional land consumption, for example by using residual materials that are produced anyway.

The dichotomy over biogas production is also reflected in Agriculture Minister Özdemir’s stance.

“Biogas can make an important contribution to accelerating the urgently needed strengthening of our self-sufficiency in energy and facilitating the heat transition in rural areas,” he said in a statement on the EEG reform.

During a press conference at the end of last week, however, Özdemir stressed that instead of being used for fodder or energy production, available biomass must be used primarily as human food.

Income opportunities

In addition to energy policy issues, the Easter Package also contributes to maintaining and further strengthening value creation in rural areas, said Özdemir, who has so far worked towards ensuring there is follow-up funding for existing biogas plants to secure their continued existence.

The package also promotes so-called agri-PV systems, photovoltaic systems on arable land. These can create additional sources of income in rural areas, Özdemir said.

The farmers’ association, however, was less optimistic about this, criticising the lack of financial perspective for the continued operation of biogas plants. Photovoltaics should “take place primarily on roofs to preserve agricultural land as much as possible,” the association said.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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