Posted by Kari Kankaanpää 3.6.2016
Year after year biomass remains a highly debated topic and continues to invoke feelings – both for and against. Why is biomass such a controversial issue and why is it topical right now?
The European Commission is preparing a sustainable bioenergy policy for the period after 2020. The first stage of the process, a public consultation, was closed on May 10th. It sparked interest, indeed: the Commission received almost 1,000 responses. The Commission’s proposal is due later this year. Parallel to this, many member states are discussing the future of their subsidy schemes for renewable energy, including biomass.
These two issues are a major challenge for the future use of biomass. This moment must be seized – this is the right timing for debate.
Biomass responds both to global and local challenges
In the aftermath of Paris COP21, the role of biomass is even more important. It is a crucial part of a sustainable energy system and a major asset for energy transition: renewable, carbon-neutral, mainly local and domestic – the only renewable energy form replacing fossil fuels in the production of electricity, heat, cooling, and traffic fuels.
Biomass is responding to several challenges: global climate change, resource efficiency and security of supply. Bioenergy production generates local economic benefits, improves employment and creates wellbeing for the rural economy.
Win-win – no conflict between various uses of biomass
Due to its versatility, biomass is a desired raw material for many purposes. A well-functioning biomass market and a level playing field for competition between the various uses of biomass has to be enabled. In the Nordic countries, we have plenty of raw material for all purposes, as does the whole EU. There is potential to increase the harvesting rate (currently 60-70% of annual forest growth in the EU) and, consequently, the amount of residues available for bioenergy production.
We all should stand on the same side and see an increasing use of biomass as a win-win situation both for the energy industry and other industries. There is no contradiction between the energy and industrial uses of biomass, as most solutions benefit both of them. Markets and economic operators – not politicians – should decide on how biomass is used for various purposes.
No cascading use – resource efficiency is the key
Recently, the principle of cascading biomass use has entered into the debate. The principle implies that the same biomass should be used more than once, starting with material use and energy conversion would typically be the last step in the hierarchy. However, in many markets energy conversion may be the only economically viable or available option for the use of biomass resources. Therefore, a rigidly implemented cascading principle is not appropriate.
Instead, resource efficiency has to be a key criterion steering the use of biomass between the different end uses. In energy production, biomass is most efficiently utilised in advanced CHP plants in connection with district heat production or in other CHP-integrated processes. In these cases, by-products and residues are combusted with an overall efficiency of up to 90%. Total efficiency can be further increased in advanced solutions where e.g. biofuel or bio liquid production is integrated into a CHP plant. Much more efficient than combusting high-quality round wood in condensing power plants, which have efficiency rates seldom reaching 40%.
Sustainability criteria to target the origin of biomass
Uncertainty over the sustainable use of biomass is increasing. Carbon debt and biodiversity are among the most debated issues. Regarding solid and gaseous biomass, the current situation, consisting of different national legislations and private initiatives, is creating uncertainty and sometimes makes trade more complicated. EU-wide harmonised and binding sustainability criteria for all biomass and targeting the origin of biomass, regardless of its end use, is needed. These criteria should enable increased use of biomass while minimising administrative burdens or related costs. The criteria should not unnecessarily reduce the competitiveness of biomass: in many cases, biomass competes with fossil fuels, which generally have no requirements to demonstrate sustainability.
I’m fully convinced that the Nordic way of managing and using our forests is sustainable. We have to convince the EU decision-makers of this, and therefore a common Nordic voice is a necessity.
Forests in the Nordic countries are already subject to several sets of legislation and to voluntary sustainable forest management (SFM) certifications. The future EU policy should take into account this existing framework. In proving the sustainability of forest biomass, a practical and transparent approach based on sustainable forest management is a necessity.
Subsidies to be gradually removed
Fragmented and constantly changing biomass subsidy schemes in the EU distort the functioning of the energy and biomass markets, prompt the unnecessary transport of biomass, reduce investment willingness and diminish the overall efficiency of pursuing the renewable energy targets.
Subsidies for biomass, as for other mature renewable energy technologies too, have to be gradually phased out and the EU ETS alone has to steer further investments in biomass and fuel choice in existing plants. Should subsidy policies continue, they have to be technology-neutral and preferably regionally harmonised.
Senior Manager, Climate Affairs