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Finland Looks to the Future of Bioenergy

Finland is, above all, a land of abundant, and growing, forests. "We produce 100 cubic meters of wood per year, while 50 cubic meters per year is harvested. We have more forest than we can use," said Jukka Leskelä, director of power generation for trade body Energiateollisuus, or Finnish Energy Industries. So it's no surprise that, given an almost complete lack of indigenous fossil fuel resources, high per-capita energy consumption, and a long-running forest management program already in place, Finland is investing in biomass and biofuels in a big way as it looks to define its future energy mix.

The nation's once-powerful forest industry has fallen on hard times, noted Leskelä. Although Finland has traditionally supported a thriving paper and pulp industry, demand for paper products has dropped, leading to factory closures. This is good news for the bioenergy sector; wood that was already slated for harvesting is now available for other uses.

The nation offers impressive support for bioenergy: a grant for 30 percent of investment in anaerobic digestion plants and 28 percent for compressors, an electricity tariff (which varies based on market price) plus €0.50/MWh if the project reuses the heat it generates. There is also a government target to replace 10 percent of the country's natural gas with biogas by 2025.

Leskelä admits that "renewable" in Finland means bioenergy, and indeed wood-based biomass underpins over 75 percent of the nation's planned activities to meet its 2020 climate targets. But Finland is also a high-tech economy and, in addition to an impressive 9 GW of planned wind capacity by 2020 (albeit no solar and no policy support for it), there is a good deal of research into biofuels and other new biomass-based energy solutions, much of it undertaken by fossil fuel companies looking to cash in on Finland's dual need to gain energy independence and meet European climate targets.

Biogas

For example, Finnish natural gas supplier Gasum, which controls the national market and owns the gas pipelines in southern Finland, is working on a number of renewable solutions including waste-based fuel from anaerobic digestion, new energy crops, "bio-SNG" (wood-based synthetic biogas created through gasification), and liquefied biogas (LBG) produced in one of the company's liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants.

Gasum aims to become Finland's leading biogas provider, said Pasi Torri, head of biogas and renewables. Currently the company's biogas is used to fuel Helsinki city buses, airport buses and service trucks, and is available in 18 filling stations across Finland. (Finnish filling stations have been required to offer a biogas option since 2011.) Torri said 30 percent of customers at these filling stations choose biogas over both gasoline and the cheaper option, natural gas (also offered by Gasum), which is half the price of gasoline. Biogas is 7 percent more expensive than natural gas. Gasum calculates the CO2 savings of wood-based biogas at around 93 tonnes compared to gasoline.

The company's waste-based fuels are made from wastewater sludge, bio-waste from households and restaurants, and some industrial waste. Torri said the processes that turn these raw materials into biofuel use about 10 percent less energy than fossil fuel processing plants, depending on the process.

Gasum also plans to experiment with growing energy crops in the Kuovola region. Torri said these crops will be planted in rotation by farmers who usually grow cereal crops. But in Finland, using forest industry residues as feedstock makes more economic sense than growing energy crops. For example, Gasum plans a 200-MW gasification plant in Joutseno for forest chips and bark. Torri explained that a forest industry company already owns the land, so the plant will work with its waste products. Gasum will invest €3-4 million in the plant, along with a €300 million grant from the EU.

Compared to buying heavily taxed natural gas from Russia, it is much cheaper to make this kind of investment in biogas, said Torri. Customers are willing to pay a premium price for green energy, he said, but he acknowledges that biogas initially will be more expensive because it's new. Gasum has a cost advantage, however, because it already owns the pipelines through which it plans to send biogas across Finland to power households and industry.

Renewable Biodiesel

Neste Oil, another Finnish company with a focus on cleaner traffic fuels, was originally a traditional oil refiner that branched out into renewable fuels, starting to produce biofuels in 2007. In Q1 2013, Neste Oil made its first profit from renewable fuels: in that period the company said it made €26 million in revenue from its renewables alone.

The central focus of Neste Oil's R&D platform is developing new feedstocks and refining existing ones, said Petri Lehmus, vice president of research and technology. Last autumn the company launched its ProDiesel, containing a minimum of 15 percent of what the company calls renewable diesel (to distinguish it from biodiesel).

 Neste Oil's research is focused on developing a flexible feedstock base from multiple sources. Credit: Tildy Bayar

Renewable diesel can be used as a drop-in fuel in all modern diesel vehicles, Lehmus said, and is also able to be used in aviation; Lufthansa tested Neste Oil's renewable aviation fuel in 2011. While traditional biodiesel is composed of vegetable oil that reacts with methanol to produce esters, renewable diesel is produced by hydrotreating vegetable oils and waste fats. In the production process the feedstock is fed to the main process unit, where hydrogenation is used to remove oxygen, the product is stabilised, and the fuel's cold-weather properties are regulated – resulting in premium quality renewable diesel. You can only mix up to 7 percent of traditional biodiesel with diesel, said Lehmus, but Neste Oil says it can mix unlimited amounts of renewable diesel because it is so pure.

"We are following feedstock issues very carefully in relation to different markets," said Lehmus. Among the feedstocks Neste Oil uses or is testing are familiar substances such as palm oil, jatropha oil, camelina and rapeseed oil, but also experimental feedstocks such as algae oil, microbial oil, purified/rendered animal fat and waste fat from the fish processing industry. "We are buying most of the animal fat that's available in Finland," he continued.

Neste Oil predicts that global annual demand for biodiesel and renewable diesel will grow to 41 million tonnes by 2020, and it is putting its R&D money (the company has invested €1.5 billion in renewable fuels, with a current capacity of 2 million tonnes) behind that belief. So is Gasum, with its investment of €20.5 million in biogas production, new transmission networks and new vehicle filling stations. In Finland, supported by a forest industry providing ample feedstock for all, such optimism is easy. But Finnish companies are looking beyond the bountiful local present to the global future of bioenergy.

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