Biomass, an energy source of the future?

Jean-Pierre Schaeken Willemaers, Chairman of the Energy, Climate, and Environment Department of the Thomas More Institute

March 2010 • Tribune 25 •

The directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and Council gives under article 2 the following definitions: energy from “renewable sources” means energy from renewable non-fossil sources, namely solar, wind, aerothermal, geothermal, hydrothermal and ocean energy, hydropower, biomass, landfill gas, sewage treatment plant gas and biogas. In particular:

  • biomass means the biodegradable fraction of products, waste and residues from biological origins from agriculture ( including vegetal and animal substances), forestry and related industries, fisheries and aquaculture as well as the biodegradable fraction of industrial and municipal waste;
  • bio-fuel means liquid or gaseous fuel for transport produced from biomass.

Under recital 8, the directive indicates a 20% target for the overall share of energy from renewable sources and a 10% target for energy from renewable sources in transport. Under article 17 “Sustainability criteria for bio-fuels and bio-liquids”, it also states that both types of fuels shall “ not be made from raw material obtained from land with high biodiversity value, namely land that has one of the following statuses in or after January 2008:

  • Primary forest and other wooded land where there is no clearly visible indication of human activity and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed;
  • Highly bio-diverse grassland that is natural, namely grassland that would remain so in the absence of human intervention and which maintains the natural species composition and ecological characteristics and processes; or non-natural, namely grassland that would cease to remain so in the absence of human intervention and which is species-rich and not degraded, unless evidence is provided that the harvesting of the raw material is necessary to preserve its grassland status.

According to IEA’s (1) Reference Scenario (2), world primary energy demand is projected to increase by 1.5% per year between 2007 and 2030, an overall increase of 40%. Developing Asian countries are the main drivers of this growth, followed by the Middle-East. Always according to the same scenario, fossil fuels remain the dominant sources of primary energy world wide, accounting for more than three quarters of the overall increase in energy use between 2007 and 2030. The main driver for coal and gas is the inexorable growth in energy needs for power generation. World electricity is projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.5% to 2030. Over 80% of the growth takes place in non OECD countries. Coal remains the backbone fuel of the power sector, its share of the global generation mix rising by 3% point to 44% in 2030. The use of non-hydro modern renewable energy technologies has the fastest rate of increase in the reference scenario. Most of the increase is in the power generation (3): the share of non-hydro “renewables” in total power output rises from 2.5% in 2007 to 8.6% in 2030. In late 2008 and early 2009, according to IEA, investments in “renewables” fell proportionally more than in other types of power generations; for 2009 as a whole, it could drop by close to one fifth. Without the stimulus provided by government fiscal packages, “renewable” investments would have fallen by almost 30%. Weaker fossil fuel prices are also undermining the attractiveness of investments in clean energy technology.

The economic crisis and resulting lower fuel energy demand growth account for three quarters of the foreseen lower global emissions by 2020 while government stimulus spending to promote low carbon investments and other new energy and climate policies account for the remainder. Non OECD countries account for all of the projected growth in energy related CO2 emissions to 2030. Hence the necessity of having those countries contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases emissions.

In the more ambitious 450 scenario (4), primary energy demand grows by 20% between 2007 and 2030. This corresponds to an average annual growth rate of 0.8% compared to 1.5% in the Reference scenario. End use efficiency is the largest contributor to CO2 emission abatement in 2030 accounting for more than half of the total savings in the 450 scenario, compared with the Reference scenario. In this scenario, coal based generation is reduced by half compared to the Reference scenario in 2030 while nuclear power and “renewables” make much bigger contributions.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the power sector and in industry represents 10% of total emissions savings in 2030. The 450 scenario entails USD 10.5 trillion more investment in infrastructure and energy related capital stock globally than in the Reference scenario through the end of the projected period. Around 45% of incremental investment needs or USD 4.7 trillion, are in transport. In the short term, the maintenance of the government stimulus effort is crucial to this investment. Natural gas will play a key role whatever the policy landscape; in the 450 scenario world primary gas demand grows by 17% between 2007 and 2030.

This paper concentrates on biomass and addresses some key issues relating to this source of energy, in particular: biomass availability and supply, its impact on employment, on agriculture prices and on environment, to what extent it can be a substitute for conventional energy and at what cost, which types of biomass are more suited to the European economical and geophysical environment.