Critics and collaboration: how the IEA governs bioenergy sustainability

Andrew Tunnicliffe 24 August 2020 (Last Updated August 23rd, 2020 22:48)

Although classed as a renewable energy source, bioenergy has its detractors. Regardless, it continues to make a significant contribution to the global energy mix. We explore the International Energy Agency Bioenergy Technology Collaboration Programme and how collaboration can help advance the sector and counter its critics.

Critics and collaboration: how the IEA governs bioenergy sustainability
“It is clear that bioenergy has a crucial role in the energy transition away from fossil fuels,” said Luc Pelkmans. Credit: Uwe Aranas

It’s a subject awash with statistics, but also confusion and misunderstanding. According to the latest figures from market data provider Statista, global bioenergy capacity reached 123.8GW in 2019 and global bioenergy production stood at 495.4 TWh. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the global production of biofuels the previous year was a staggering 154 billion litres, with the sector accounting for about 10% of total primary energy production.

It’s a booming market, and has been for some time. For those not directly working within it, the fact that bioenergy meets more energy demand than renewables such as solar and wind, combined, would likely be a surprise. Its foothold will only increase as we move towards decarbonisation and pressure to reduce greenhouse emissions continues to grow.

“From the energy modelling work of the International Energy Agency,” says the IEA’s Luc Pelkmans, “it is clear that bioenergy has a crucial role in the energy transition away from fossil fuels.” There has, however, been a fair amount of misunderstanding about bioenergy in the past, despite its growing popularity.

Make way for the energy crop

Just a few decades ago, there was a notable reluctance among some to accept bioenergy as a possible solution – or at least partial solution – to the climate challenge. It was argued that rather than addressing these issues, it would create swathes of ecologically barren monocultures and compete with traditional (food) farming, risking nations’ ability to self-sustain.

In the years since, many have acknowledged that it is possible to get the balance right, allowing countries to continue producing the food they need whilst also tapping into the potential of energy crops. The use of so-called energy crops isn’t new though, it’s been around since man first made fire, arguably even longer. Now the use of plants, waste (from agriculture and food), and wood for energy and heat is helping to sustain life around the world.

Today, as an energy source, biomass is flexible, meaning it can be readily available to support utilities when supply is challenged. It is also a key contributor to heating and is increasingly playing a role in transportation systems too.

Going forward, it is likely that the fuel will have an even bigger role to play in the future. In its recent annual report, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change said that the use of bioenergy “should be prioritised in such a way as to maximise emissions savings across the country”, adding that the regulatory framework should, however, be tightened to ensure sustainability.

Bioenergy: the promise and the problem

Although the outlook for bioenergy is positive, there are barriers that remain. Pelkmans says that among them is the relatively low cost of fossil fuels and underdeveloped bioenergy supply chains. He also believes that finance is a major inhibitor: “Deployment requires healthy business cases and access to finance. At the moment risk perception is still high, so actors need help in derisking.”

While those factors are a challenge, and despite a growing acceptance of bioenergy, Pelkmans says that there is still work to be done on the industry’s perception among the general public, and the impact that has on policy.

“We see a big debate on bioenergy in some countries, with a high focus on how things can go wrong – even groups campaigning against bioenergy, without any nuance – which is creating a negative public perception in society at large,” he explains.

The IEA Bioenergy Technology Collaboration Programme (TCP), for which Pelkmans works as technical coordinator, was  established in 1978 with a mission to improve the public’s perceptions of the sector and encourage cooperation and information sharing between countries with national programmes in bioenergy research, development, and deployment.

It continues that work today – one of 42 active IEA TCPs – providing opportunities to exchange information and experiences in bioenergy research, technology development, demonstration, and policy analysis. It does this with member states through network development, information dissemination, and the provision of science-based analysis and advice.

“Moreover, IEA Bioenergy has moved more towards facilitating the deployment of bioenergy and exploring horizontal issues such as feedstock mobilisation, sustainability, and integration of bioenergy in the future energy system,” Pelkmans continues.

Taken to task

Today, much of the work involves developing guidance and standards, as well as promoting global technological collaboration rather than technological innovation.

“Several outcomes are aimed at producing guidance: towards industry on how to set up supply chains or what concepts make sense; towards policymakers on the potential policy measures to support bioenergy, and to govern its sustainability,” add Pelkmans.

Broken into individual tasks, the IEA Bioenergy TCP aims to tackle some of the sector’s biggest issues. Members with a particular interest can opt in to each task, allowing them to share their knowledge with others while making the most of an opportunity to collaborate and learn. Each task has its own objectives, budgets, and timeframes; some tasks do cross, at which point “inter-task collaboration” is encouraged. It is a model that Pelkmans believes is vital to the continued development of bioenergy.

“I think it is crucial to collaborate… you can build on what others have learned,” he says. As part of its work, the Bioenergy TCP provides a platform for experts and stakeholders to engage,  through webinars and workshops for example. Each country has its own lead who joins others on tasks, reporting where there nation is and working with partners to advance an issue.

In April 2020, China joined the Bioenergy TCP, bringing the number of counties onboard to 26, a move that IEA Bioenergy and Pelkmans believe is significant.

“China has tremendous growth opportunities in biofuels, biopower, bio-heat, bioproducts, and biogas and exchange with other countries involved and experienced in bioenergy can help them take major steps in this, within sustainability safeguards,” he says.

China already has a flourishing bio economy, employing more than 330,000 in the sector. The Bioenergy TCP said that China possesses significant biomass resources that could be harnessed to produce sustainable bioenergy, providing a solution to deliver cleaner air, enhanced energy security, and waste management, as well as meeting growing energy demand.

Learning from those around you

“It is efficient to look at what’s going on in the rest of the world, learn from each other’s experiences and good practices, such as avoiding duplicating work that has been done somewhere else, avoid repeating mistakes, and learn about best practices in types of concepts as well as implemented policies,” Pelkmans says.

However, he and the Bioenergy TCP aim to go further, engaging more widely with sectors not obviously linked.

“In the longer term this will be more focused at sectors that are difficult to switch to electricity, like long haul transport – aviation, shipping, truck transport – or high temperature heat in industry,” he adds.

Whilst Pelkmans accepts that there are challenges, including tight budgets, he believes bioenergy already has a lot to shout about. He says that it’s available now; it’s versatile and applicable in different sectors such as power, heating, and transport fuels; and there is flexibility to redirect biofuels to long haul transport in the medium term.

As well as its further potential in transport, an area that will likely become of even greater interest is that it is storable, ideally positioning the fuel for a world where renewable power is dominant – at least as dominant as the often and increasingly unpredictable weather will allow.

For Pelkmans though, there is a need to counter the ill feeling the industry sometimes garners.

Accepting it is a challenge, he says: “We realise it’s not easy to fight – with perceptions often considered more important than facts and nuances – but we aim to support sustainable governance of bioenergy supply chains and bring fact-based key messages to the societal debates… counteracting misinformation and emotion-based perceptions. Creating trust in the sustainable governance of bioenergy is crucial for its further deployment.”