The Dutch have decided: Burning biomass is not sustainable

EU member states are increasingly turning their coal plants into biomass plants in an effort to cut carbon emissions. [Mizzou CAFNR / Flickr]

The Netherlands should phase out the use of biomass for generating electricity as soon as possible, the advisory board of the Dutch government said in a report presented earlier this month.

Biomass is an “indispensable” resource for the circular economy, but burning it is wasteful.

That is the main message of the report issued on 8 July by the Socio-Economic Council (SER), an independent advisory board of the Dutch government consisting of entrepreneurs, employees and independent experts.

In the chemical industry, the building sector and agriculture, biological materials are crucial for the transition to a circular economy, the council writes. But sustainably produced biomass is too scarce to keep using it for the production of heat or electricity, for which other low-carbon and renewable alternatives exist, the report states.

Accordingly, the billions worth of subsidies that were intended for biomass combustion plants should be phased out as well, the advisors say, calling however for measures to preserve “investment security” when designing a phase-out plan.

This means compensation should be handed out to companies who stand to lose out from the abrupt end of bioenergy subsidies.

“In case of a faster phase-out than companies and employees could have reasonably foreseen, compensation for investments, labour consequences and social consequences is appropriate,” the document states.

The ball is now in the court of the Dutch government, which will use the advice to construct a national “sustainability framework” for bio-resources due to be presented after the summer.

The new framework will “expand on existing criteria” laid down in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive to design “widely supported and coherent criteria on the sustainable production and use of biomass” in the Netherlands.

The new policy is intended to improve the country’s alignment with long-term climate goals, including the EU’s objective of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

In anticipation of the government’s new policy, Swedish energy company Vattenfall has already decided to postpone construction of a planned biomass plant in Diemen.

“For Vattenfall it is essential that the Dutch government proposes a clear sustainability framework,” the company said in a statement.

A heated debate 

The report from the government advisory group has somewhat pacified a heated public debate around the sustainability of biomass which had gone into overdrive in the Netherlands over the past months.

Back in May, Eric Wiebes, the Dutch minister of economic affairs and climate policy, said that biomass was essential to achieve the country’s targets on renewable energy and carbon emissions reduction.

“If we want to achieve the climate task, we will need biomass for the time being,” he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS, emphasising that the pellets that are used in Dutch power plants are “residual wood from the wood industry”.

“Such residual wood, you need to get rid of it, so you better do something useful with it,” he said.

The minister’s comments came on the heels of a study by the national institute for strategic policy analysis in the fields of environment, nature and spatial planning (PBL), one of the main sources used in the SER advice.

150 organisations and experts as well as 400 reports were consulted for that study, in an attempt to “provide insight in the most important causes underlying different positions in the public debate” on biomass through a “joint fact-finding” approach.

Initially, the PBL study only added fuel to the fire because it concluded that different forms of production and use of energy were not comparable.

“There is not one truth” about the sustainability of biomass, the PBL’s Bart Strengers told NOS when the study came out on 8 May.

The government reacted by emphasising the importance of biomass in reaching the country’s emission reduction targets, but environmentalists retorted that the carbon reductions were only happening on paper: carbon emissions calculations do not reflect reality, they argued.

“What do they mean, biomass indispensable for emission reductions? If you only look at it from an accounting point of view, yes. But if you consider the life cycle of biomass as a renewable resource, it will only lead to more CO2 emissions and reinforced global warming,” the national federation against biomass plants wrote in a comment to the study.

EU plans sweeping bioenergy review by end 2020

The European Commission intends to push a “transformative approach” to all forms of bioenergy – including biofuels and woody biomass – as part of a biodiversity strategy due to be unveiled on Wednesday (20 May).

How to fill the gap?

Now that the SER final advice is out, at least one piece of the Dutch puzzle has been solved. Importing wood pellets for the production of heat or electricity is not considered sustainable.

With that conclusion, the SER opens a “new chapter” in the biomass discussion, said Stientje van Veldhoven, the Dutch secretary of state for infrastructure and environment.

The main question now is: if bioenergy is phased out, what will come in to fill the gap?

Bioenergy is currently considered a carbon-neutral renewable energy source under EU law and currently represents almost 60% of renewable energy consumption in the EU, 96% of which is produced within Europe, according to the European Commission.

In the Netherlands, the share of biomass in renewables is almost the same, standing at 61% in 2018, although most of that is imported from other European countries, for instance in the form of wood pellets from Estonia.

The SER advice also emphasises that the phase-out of biomass cannot come at the expense of climate goals, which rules out coal and possibly also gas as a replacement.

This means that the Netherlands will require a huge amount of additional renewable energy sources – solar panels and wind turbines – in order to make up the shortfall.

Whether that is a realistic option is still subject of debate however. “With the plans there are now, the chance is bigger that we will not reach it than that we will,” said professor Gert Jan Kramer of the university of Utrecht who spoke to the Dutch national broadcaster, NOS.

A model for Europe?

The Dutch debate may well herald developments at EU level, where the sustainability of biomass for energy purposes is coming under review.

The European Union attached sustainability criteria to the use of biomass in its last revision of the EU’s renewable energy directive, agreed two years ago. But environmental groups have warned about the discrepancy between the EU’s bioenergy policy and its long-term climate goals.

As part of the biodiversity strategy presented on 20 May, the European Commission said it was constantly “assessing the EU and global biomass supply and demand and related sustainability” in order to “better understand and monitor the potential climate and biodiversity risks”.

That process will culminate by end 2020, when “the Commission will publish the results of this work on the use of forest biomass for energy production,” the EU executive said in its biodiversity strategy.

Subsequently, in 2021, the Commission will revise key EU laws, such as the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, and the Regulation on land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF), and present “operational guidance” on the new sustainability criteria on forest biomass for energy.

Whether or not forest biomass will still legally be considered as a carbon neutral and renewable source of energy by then remains to be seen.

'Not all biomass is carbon neutral', industry says

Leading industry figures acknowledge that not all biomass brings benefits to the climate, insisting that only low-value wood and forest residues should make the cut under EU law.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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