Realistic regulations needed for bioenergy to be a long-term solution to emissions reduction

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

BioEnergy Science Center

BioEnergy Science Center [Oak Ridge National Laboratory]

The European Commission and the Parliament must stay realistic when it comes to limiting emissions from medium combustion plants (MCP), if the long-term objective is to develop a sustainable and low-emission energy production, writes Jean-Marc Jossart.

Jean-Marc Jossart is the secretary general of AEBIOM, the European Biomass Association, which represents the interests of national associations and companies of the sector throughout Europe.

On 7 May, the European Parliament’s ENVI Committee voted on MCP and decided to support the stringent emission limit values initially proposed by the Commission (December 2013), ignoring de facto the Council’s more realistic agreement, reached in December 2014. Acknowledging challenges faced by the industry to adapt to such ambitious values in such a short period, Member States had proposed emission limit values reflecting the market reality in order to secure the development of energy production based on a renewable source of energy. The file will now be negotiated through a trilogue.

The initial will of the European Commission to limit emissions from medium combustion plants had been welcomed by the bioenergy sector as a step in the right direction. However, in the light of the latest developments, it has become essential to warn EU policy makers that the establishment of stringent emission limit values for biomass could lead to the opposite effect to that intended. In fact these could drive investments away from a renewable source of energy towards less sustainable and more polluting solutions.

Today bioenergy represents 62% of all the EU renewable energy consumption. However, under this common designation lies a wide range of operators and technologies. Among the 1-50 MW biomass plants concerned by the MCP directive, installations between 1-5 MW are usually operated by SMEs whereas plants between 20-50 MW are commonly run by big utilities. The emission levels proposed by the Commission and supported by the ENVI Committee fail to recognize this complex reality by applying almost the same emission limit values to all operators. In this context, our main concern resides in the challenge of achieving dust emission limitations for small-sized installations.

In fact, technologies required to achieve such levels need continuous maintenance and add considerably to electricity consumption on heating plants. The high cost of technology required to attain such ambitious levels of emissions would lead to the closure of most small-sized existing biomass plants. It is indispensable to let those plants work until the end of their normal life cycle (which is approximately 20 years). Closing down viable heating plants would bring about a significant waste of resources. This additional investment demand would also undermine the opportunities for increased bioenergy use through the construction of new biomass plants.

Allowing slightly higher emission limit values, as proposed by the Council, would support the development of bioenergy, while the impact on total dust emissions would be minimal. Interestingly, according to the impact assessment of AMEC, a British engineering and consulting firm, the emission limit values proposed by the Council will have cut a third of the emissions by 2030.

In addition to air quality challenges in some areas, Europe is currently facing an important energy security threat and needs to accelerate its shift from fossil energy to renewables. Bioenergy can play a major role in that transition as it can be used in different applications, such as base load heat, peak load power plants, cooling and industrial steam production, including applications in which other renewable energy sources cannot emit heat (e.g. high industrial temperatures). Bioenergy can benefit from Europe’s competitiveness as well, by providing a stable fuel cheaper than unpredictable imported fossil fuels. Finally, the European bioenergy industry is a world leader and is fueling the European economy, creating local and innovative jobs across Europe.

For all the aforementioned reasons, biomass installations should be granted some time and flexibility to adapt. By doing so, I resolutely believe that Europe will be able to secure the flourishing of an innovative and sustainable bioenergy sector.

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