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  1. Analysis
March 31, 2022

Industrial biomass: is it a mass movement?

Biomass is one contender for replacing fossil fuels, but questions over its suitability, and the sustainability of its source, remain.

By Andrew Tunnicliffe

At the end of January 2022, the Germany-based Koehler Group announced it had developed a new biomass technology that would allow it to produce energy to power some of its production. Primarily a paper manufacturer specialising in niche fields, the energy-intensive company said the innovation meant it could convert an older coal-fired plant at its site in German town of Greiz into a bioenergy facility.

A similar feat, although far larger in scale, was achieved a decade ago at the UK’s Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire. In 2012 the plant was Europe’s biggest decarbonisation project of its day, and partially converted from coal to biomass, generating approximately 3.9 MW or in the region of 6% of the UK’s energy supply.

The likes of the Koehler Group and Drax are not alone; in fact energy suppliers the world over are converting plants, or at the very least have plans to diversify towards that as part of a wider sustainable energy goal. Denmark’s multinational energy giant Ørsted has ambitious goals. It says that by 2023 it will have fully replaced “coal as a fuel, with sustainable biomass”. It’s a bold statement but one the company believes is possible.

Environmental conservation and environmental damage

Yet such ambitions have been contentious in the past. Ørsted itself has had to acknowledge some of the criticism plans like its have elicited. “Early on we recognised the impact biomass had in helping to create a greener future,” said the company. “As long as biomass is sustainably sourced, it is considered to be a CO₂-neutral fuel because it emits the same amount of CO₂ from burning, which it absorbs during growth.”

As long as biomass is “sustainably sourced”, that is the issue. At the end of 2019 climate thinktank Sandbag warned Europe’s conversion plans may actually result in even more climate damage than they help prevent. It said plans would accelerate rather than address the climate crisis by potentially destroying forests quicker than they can grow back, as a result of the “staggering” amount of tree cutting needed to fuel plants.

Going back to Germany and on the issue of forests, the group warned the amount of pellets needed to fire Europe’s biomass plants, under what were then current plans, might equal half the size of the Black Forest each year. “The scale of the forest cut down to run these power plants is staggering – it’s impossible to believe coal companies when they argue that the switch to burning forests could be good for the climate,” said Charles Moore, Sandbag’s senior energy and policy analyst.

Biomass generation relies on crops and timber, though these have some of the same hidden problems of coal. Credit: Drax.

It was a view echoed sometime later by policy institute Chatham House. In a 2021 report it said existing national and intergovernmental policy frameworks treat forest biomass as zero carbon at the point of combustion, granting it access to financial and regulatory support, adding that consumption of wood pellets was growing rapidly as a result. “Yet these frameworks do not take full account of the contribution of biomass burning to increased carbon emissions,” it added.

The paper cautioned that in consumer countries, policymakers would have a “false sense of optimism” about the progress they are making in decarbonising energy supply and producing countries would have “no corresponding incentive to reduce future emissions” if a zero-carbon policy framework on biomass was assumed.

Drawing the biomass battle lines

The Chatham House paper went on to cite the UK as an example of enacting a flawed policy, stating that almost none of the emissions resulting from biomass are included in its national greenhouse gas inventory. If they were, it said, this would add between 22%–27% to total emissions from electricity generation. “This volume is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 6 to 7 million passenger vehicles,” it said.

It was also critical of the role the US lumber industry plays in supplying both the EU and UK, saying it accounts for emissions from their combustion, supply chain and forgone removals of CO₂ from the atmosphere. The harvesting of live trees and the decay of roots and unused logging residues left in the forest after harvest pose a unique challenge, and in the UK alone US-sourced wood pellets burnt were “responsible for 13 to 16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019.”

It was a criticism the US Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) flatly rejected, labelling it “thoroughly debunked”.

The industry body said: “Chatham House again finds itself in contradiction with the UN IPCC (United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) on the role of sustainable biomass as an essential tool for mitigating climate change. The conclusions of its latest report are deeply flawed, and based on a total rejection of carbon accounting and reporting guidelines as determined by the world’s leading authority on climate science.”

The UN IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report – which looks at the state of climate change, its impact and steps that can be taken to contain it – concluded that there was a role for biomass, but it had to be sustainably sourced and supported by bioengineering with carbon capture and storage technologies some analysts argued “barely exist” today. Those views weren’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but there was cause for optimism that biomass might hold some of the answers to preventing climate change.

Despite the USIPA’s irritation at Chatham House, said the industry body did agree with the analysis of the panel, noting that, “the IPCC pathways that give humanity the best chance at achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement rely significantly on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.”

In the most optimistic scenario, the IPCC said global warming would be limited to 1.5˚C, at which point only carbon capture and storage would help bring down warming to safer levels. To do so, globally we would annually have to remove in the region of 5 billion tonnes of CO₂ by mid-century and 17 billion by the end of it; a daunting proposition given that many of the technologies needed are just hypotheses today.

Mass optimism, mass challenge

It’s fair to say that there are still challenges to be overcome if the world is to harness fully the potential of bioenergy. Given the conflicting views on the viability of biomass, the greatest challenge is arguably one of perception and education on all sides. But bioenergy, in biomass, has a role to play in the future of sustainable power. According to European Commission data the sector already provides 60% of the EU’s heating and electricity.

Even so, the Commission itself accepts there is more research to do. It says among the challenges are improving the technology in terms of efficiency and cost reduction; developing reliable, integrated bioenergy supply chains from feedstock to conversion into heat, electricity and transport fuels; and integrating bioenergy in the overall energy system.

As the skirmishes between the USIPA and Chatham House perfectly illustrate, for now the battlelines are feedstock, supported by figures from Bioenergy Europe which says the EU relies on woody biomass for almost 70% of its supply for its growing number of biomass-capable plants. Although precise statistics are hard to find, in 2019 it was estimated there were 74 biomass-capable plants across the leading 15 bioenergy producers in Europe, collectively burning 32 million tonnes of biomass according to responsible investment advisor, ShareAction. The UK accounted for 15 sites, followed by Germany with 13.

Bioenergy Europe secretary-general Jean-Marc Jossart, said: “Bioenergy is the only sector with strict sustainability criteria.”

However, he acknowledged the need for improved policy formulation, as has been called for: “They need to be based on a consistent and solid policy framework to ensure a functioning market and prevent the discouraging of investments which would jeopardise the achievement of EU climate targets.” The body added that instilling confidence in investors with a long-term policy design and strategy was the first step to achieve a carbon neutral future.

There’s no question that bioenergy, and biomass specifically, has a future in both Europe’s and the world’s energy composition. There are still questions about what that role might be. Until we can decide how renewable it really is, we can’t decide how important it could be to the fight against climate change at a time when power and heat is a commodity so crucial we’re prepared to do battle for it.

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