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Austria Flexes Its Bioenergy Muscles

The yard is piled high with stacks of wood. A local company collects it from the surrounding forests and brings it to the 2-MW gassification biomass power plant at Güssing in Burgenland in Austria.

Biomass supplies Güssing with not only all of its own energy needs, but also allows it to feed surplus energy into the national grid — using only about a quarter of the amount of wood that regrows each year in the local forests.

"We wouldn't be able to use all the new wood there is out there," said Christian Keglovits from the European Center for Renewable Energy in Güssing.

About 47 percent of the land in Austria is covered in forest, and it is by tapping its rich timber resources that the country now plans to ramp up the proportion of renewables in its energy mix to meet an ambitious European Union goal, which was set in 2008.

All the European Union countries are required to increase their use of renewable energies by an average of about 11 percent to boost the EU's share of renewables in the energy mix from about 8.5% today to 20% by 2020.

They've also been asked to increase energy efficiency by 20 percent compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

In line with this, Austria has been given a national target of generating 34 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, up from the 23.3 percent today.

To meet the EU targets by 2020, Austria's final energy consumption should be 1,406 PJ. Of that, about one-fifth, or around 280 PJ, is expected to come from biomass by 2020. In fact, biomass will be supplying more than half of the 519 PJ set to be generated by renewables in Austria, jumping ahead of the traditional hydropower resource.

"If you look at all the countries in the top of the EU table when it comes to producing renewable energy, they all make use of bioenergy. Austria, Sweden, Latvia and Finland all have abundant forests. Bioenergy around the globe has a huge potential," Kasimir Nemestothy, Austrian Chamber of Agriculture, told

Nemestothy recently helped author a policy paper for the magazine Science (March 13th) arguing that America could apply some of the lessons from Austria's biomass industry to tap its own gigantic bioenergy resources.

Austria's biomass sector has indeed been growing fast and furious out of the spotlight. In 2005, biomass contributed 176 PJ to Austria's final energy consumption compared to 131 PJ in 2000.

"Biomass could contribute much more than 280 PJ to Austria's final energy consumption," said Gregor Grill from Austria's Biomass Association, a biomass industry umbrella organization.

Sweden recently floated a plan to increase the country's share of renewables to 50 percent by 2020, largely by using its biomass resources.

The key to using bioenergy successfully is efficiency, says Grill. First, there has to be logistical and organizational efficiency when it comes to collecting wood, waste and straw and getting it to the biomass plant.

Second, there has to be technological efficiency in converting the wood or straw or waste to energy. To improve the logistics of collecting wood economically, Austria is promoting a decentralized network of small-scale biomass plants rather than large-scale ones.

"The key to bioenergy efficiency is integration and multipurpose use so we can get heat and electricity at the same time," said Grill.

Austria already has 120 combined heat and power (CHP) plants producing 320 MW of electricity. Grill said some of these CHP plants have a conversion rate of 60 to 70 percent.

More than just a reliable resource, biomass is also flexible.

"In Castille and Leon in Spain, they're using straw, agricultural waste, wood from olive trees for their bioenergy push. The advantage of biomass is that it can be adapted to each region," said Grill.

Under the Bioenergy Plan of Castile and León for 2008-2020, a total of EU €1.3 million [US $1.7 million] is to be invested to collect and burn 2,000 ktep of biomass, which is the equivalent of 1,000 tons of petroleum in a push that should create 4,500 jobs and see 250 MW of electric power installed, supplying 450,000 homes with electricity and 250,000 people with heat.

Austria is also planning to expand massively the use of wood to heat private homes and businesses. The Austrian government has recently announced subsidies of EU €100 million to help householders and companies make the switch to wood-powered heating systems.

"It's a step in the right direction, but we asked for a billion euros," said Grill.

Also, Grill said he hoped the government would increase the feed-in tariff to make biomass cost competitive with other fuels, and that a ceiling for government support to small-scale biomass plants — the kind predominant in Austria — would be removed.

"Just how quickly biomass grows depends a lot on the right incentives, the right regulatory framework and on political will," he said.

Meanwhile, in Güssing the focus is on developing innovative bioenergy technologies of the kind the world could be using in ten to twenty years.

Researchers are working on the commercialization of synthetic second generation biofuels from wood based on the Fischer Tropsch method used during World War 1 to extract fuel from coal.

"We've been successful in producing fuel from wood in small quantities in the lab and now we're going to start producing 100 to 200 liters a day in a demo plant," Keglovits told in an interview.

"We're focusing on small-scale plants to reduce the need to transport wood from hundreds of miles around," he added.

In addition, wood gasification technology is in use with a plant that powers an engine using gas to generate electricity. Biosynthetic natural gas plants using wood as a feedstock are also being developed as well as a biogas plant driven by fermenting grass.

With all this activity going on, jobs in Austria's biomass sector are set to increase by about 80,000 and the country's huge biomass exports are also set to expand.

Just recently, Redlands City Council in California has approached Güssing to discuss a pilot biomass plant.

Jane Burgermeiser is a writer based in Austria.

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