THE BIG QUESTION: Could Bioenergy Power the World?

Each issue, Renewable Energy World asks leading players in the industry to give their verdict on a key issue of the moment.

The World Bioenergy Association recently published a position paper that claimed bioenergy, and in particular biomass, has the potential to meet global energy demand by 2050 if best practices and technologies are adopted worldwide and sufficient land is made available for production. Ahead of the World Bioenergy 2010 Conference & Exhibition in Jönköping, Sweden on May 25 to 27, Renewable Energy World’s Big Question asks : How realistic is this scenario and what challenges would need to be overcome for bioenergy to achieve this ambitious goal?

Bryan Hannegan, Vice President, Environment and Renewable Energy, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)

EPRI agrees that bioenergy could play a significant role in meeting future global energy needs. However, current economic analyses of a future low-carbon global energy system show biomass can cost-effectively provide only as much as 20% of all our energy in 2050, and only 15% over the next century.

To achieve even this potential, several challenges must be addressed Firstly, a viable global supply chain is not yet available for the volumes of biomass needed to meet even a small fraction of future demand. Biomass from even marginal land is not free.

Processing facilities must be sited close to feedstocks, and marginal land may not be readily accessible.

Also, land could be used for other purposes and food, feed, and/or fiber supplies could potentially be affected.

Technology development must improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of direct and co-firing biomass.

Highly efficient biomass gasification technologies must be developed.

Finally, new technologies could substantially increase useful biomass yield, reducing demand for fertilizer and fresh water. But improved productivity also could increase overall production and acreage at the expense of other uses.

There is no consistent metric for evaluating net biomass power and fuels’ carbon emissions – biomass energy is not carbon neutral – when accounting for harvest, handling, processing, transport, and land-use conversion. EPRI appreciates enthusiasm for biomass, but suggests caution. There are significant challenges in shifting the global energy mix towards greater bioenergy.

Dorothy Thompson, Chief Executive, Drax Group PLC, UK

Biomass could make a far greater contribution to electricity generation. In the UK the most serious barrier to increased use of biomass is not technology or availability of biomass, but government policy. Biomass has a huge potential to deliver reliable and secure supplies of electricity which are, importantly, sustainable and low carbon. Unfortunately, government policy mistakenly restricts the development of biomass technologies in preference to other renewable technologies.

The reality is that all renewable technologies must be harnessed to the maximum. Holding biomass back is forcing the UK to be a higher carbon economy than it needs to be.

The biomass market is in its infancy and for it to be allowed to develop, policy constraints and hurdles must be removed. The biggest threats to biomass are the co-firing cap, the level of support for co-firing regular (that is, non-energy crop) biomass, and for dedicated biomass plant the lack of grandfathering rights, which would guarantee a level of support during a plant’s lifetime.

The co-firing cap restricts the amount of co-firing and therefore coal displacement that plants like Drax can undertake. The lack of grandfathering rights means a dedicated biomass plant, unlike wind, could see the amount of support vary and therefore there is no certainty of a return on the investment made.

The UK government recently launched a consultation on the grandfathering of dedicated biomass plants, which proposes to grandfather a minimum level of support. The analysis now has to be done to see if this works in practice – in other words, whether it will give investors the confidence to invest.

The UK government could deliver real CO2 reductions in the short term and thereby help nurture a biomass supply infrastructure for the long term. For some reason it remains committed to a policy of holding back Britain’s most successful renewable resource.

Edita Vagonyte, European Affairs Manager, European Biomass Association

The main challenges for sustainable bioenergy sector development and achieving this ambitious goal relate to national policies, infrastructure in developing countries and efficiency of energy systems. Biomass potential for 2050 in the WBA scenario is realistic. However, reaching this environmentally friendly target is not an easy task, as in practice, policies do not always promote the use of bioenergy.

If we take Europe as an example, we can see that by 2020, the biogas and pellets sectors alone can reach 73 Mtoe. In 2007 the total gross inland consumption of biomass accounted for 98 Mtoe.

A huge biomass potential lies in developing countries. However, poverty, lack of infrastructure for developing biomass (and also provision of food and wategreer) and the situation concerning rights to land use mean that bioenergy development is not the main priority, or is too complex or costly to develop.

However, if there is a political will in those countries, biomass development could contribute by not only securing energy supplies, but also by combating poverty and building infrastructure for food and water supply.

In Europe, development of the biomass sector is going in the right direction, especially after the publication of the Renewable Energy Directive in June 2009. Nevertheless, there are still insufficient policies in some EU member states, administrative barriers, and problems related to mobilisation of biomass/biomass supply.

The situation will hopefully improve with the adoption of the Renewable Energy Action plans to be published by June 2010 by EU member states.

In order to increase biomass use in Europe, it is necessary to help switch from fossil based systems. Biomass fuels in Europe are usually cheaper than fossil fuels. However, such a switch requires investment.

For example, France provides good support for residential houses via a tax credit. If a house switches, the investment cost is reduced by 40%, and by 25% if an owner decides to install a biomass appliance for the first time.

Sustainability of solid biomass is also a key topic. There is no doubt that biomass should be developed sustainably. However, in Europe there are already sustainability rules within the agricultural and forestry sectors, and an extra sustainability scheme could add unnecessary and costly administrative barriers, especially for small-scale biomass players.

Doug Parr, Policy Director, Greenpeace UK

Whether bioenergy can be produced in a sustainable way is not in doubt – it can. But whether it can be produced on a scale that makes a significant dent in our greenhouse gas emissions is questionable. Why, when the WBA report says it can be done on so little land?

First, the report barely refers to lifecycle analysis, despite advocating increased intensification. This becomes critical on the question of land use change if more land is being used, and especially indirect land use change where diverting land to energy ripples through market, economies and land use policy, causing changes elsewhere. These issues are so complex that legislators across the EU are grappling with them with very limited success.

Second, what do we actually find in practice when bio-energy demand goes up? Despite millions of deforested hectares that could grow palm oil instead we see fresh deforestation where timber sales are used to subsidise new plantations. Bioenergy could be produced sustainably but it isn’t, and shows no sign of being so without major changes to country governance, corporate culture, bioenergy policy, agricultural policy and WTO modus operandi.

Douglas Bradley, President and Executive Director, Canadian Bioenergy Association

It is realistic. For the last 10 years, experts have agreed that worldwide we have billions of tonnes of agricultural and forest residues, but getting at it is another issue.

The challenge is getting biomass from where it’s at to where it’s needed – which is mainly Europe and increasingly North America.

Right now, places in South America and Namibia are so overrun by Achaia trees that the government is coming up with schemes to get rid of them. The fact is, it is good biomass. If those countries can collect and densify that biomass they can create high-value products such as bio-oil, biofuel and bio-char out of their raw materials to bring in new wealth and deliver biomass to the world market at a low cost.

In countries like Argentina, we could built 15 bio-oil plants near barges then move the oil to Montevideo and, from there, bring it on freighters to Europe. That’s why, as the president of the Canadian Bioenergy Association, I’m pushing for the establishment of a bio-trade equity fund.

That kind of fund would provide the missing ingredient – market stability – by getting countries in the EU to guarantee they will buy biomass at fixed prices, and getting supply countries to agree they will provide that biomass, or face penalties.

A bio-trade equity fund would have the sole purpose of finding large amounts of biomass and then finding funding to build conversion plants and also – and this is the key – to develop low cost supply chains to bring that biomass where it’s needed.

Giuliano Grassi, European Biomass Industry Association

The Big Question asks whether bioenergy could ever meet these projections related to the global consumption level. Modern bioenergy indeed has the potential (in the very long term) to satisfy humanity’s needs in a relevant way.

Today, the global primary world energy demand is about 11.5 billion TOE (tonnes of oil equivalent) per year, rising to 23 billion TOE per year by 2050. In fact, at present, the world’s biomass production is estimated at 80 billion TOE per year (terrestrial), 20 billion TOE per year (aquatic), and the total amount of residues is around 6.6 billion TOE per year.

Furthermore, the total worldwide cropland is around 2 billion ha with a present utilization of 750 million ha, but for an increased world population should reach the level of 1.2 billion ha. Biomass yearly production from 800 million ha could reach a very relevant level (based on a long term average yield of 30 dry tonnes per ha each year for energy crops). Large areas of marginal land and semi-arid land could be also recovered with appropriate management and high levels of investment.

Of course, the problems of water availability, and of its efficient utilization and conservation, become a critical issue, because the minimum requirement to grow biomass is 200 tonnes of H2O per tonne of biomass produced. This value can help to understand that our planet is well calibrated, but all the resources must be managed in an efficient way. Also, we have to ask whether it is reasonable to import the biofuels from the other side of the world.

Eubia, the European Biomass Industry Association, strongly believes that important targets related to bioenergy can be reached, but only by balancing financial effort and sustainable criteria and behaviour.

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