Bioenergy: an asset to European forests

by Jean-Baptiste Boucher, Communications Director, COPA-COCEGA

This article appears in REVOLVE #28
Feature 25 July 2018


Of all biomass, wood has always been the most popular source of energy used in Europe. We all know someone in our family that has a traditional chimney or a modern, wood pellet stove in their home. In 2014, more than 69% of bioenergy consumed in Europe was sourced from forests, referred to as “solid biomass” under its fuel form and “solid bioenergy” when converted into energy. Bioenergy is the EU-28’s largest source of renewable energy, making up over 60% of the share of renewables and 10% of total energy on aggregate. Bioenergy is also the only renewable energy capable of providing energy in the 3 primary forms required by society: heat, electricity and transport. One might say that woody biomass is a key driver of Europe’s energy transition, while forests are an essential source of biodiversity and carbon storage. Understanding the strong synergies that exist between the production of bioenergy and the management of forests is crucial. 

Bioenergy is the EU-28’s largest source of renewable energy, making up over 60% of the share of renewables and 10% of total energy on aggregate.

Woody biomass, a European success story

Solid bioenergy is above all a European success story – a sector in which Europe is a clear leader both in terms of production and consumption. The first developments of a modern bioenergy industry occurred in the 1970s with the production of efficient stoves, boilers, and new fuels such as pellets and briquettes. Yet it was not until the early 2000s, with the enforcement of the EU’s objectives on renewable energy, that the bioenergy sector established itself as a key player in the wood industry alongside traditional sawmill and paper industries. In 2015, more than 300,000 people were either directly or indirectly employed by the solid bioenergy sector, equalling the number of people working for the wind industry. This is largely due to the length and complexity of the bioenergy supply chain, which reaches remote and rural areas, where jobs are needed most. The bioenergy sector is shaped by hundreds of SMEs which are deeply embedded in the local and regional social fabric, creating an interesting dynamic between groups like forest owners, municipalities and fuel suppliers. To advance this relation, AEBIOM launched a campaign in late 2017 dedicated to the “European Bioenergy Day” (November 21) featuring success stories from across Europe to highlight bioenergy developments. 

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Solid bioenergy and European forests

In debates on the revision of the EU Renewable Energy Directive, criticisms were presented on the pressure that solid bioenergy could put on European forests in the decades to come. However, a closer look and deeper understanding of the bio-based economy reveals shortcomings in this view. Observing the current rate of wood removals sourced from EU forests every year, 78% goes to the wood industry for the material use of wood. Only a fraction of wood removals, around 22%, are destined for energy, mostly comprised of tops, branches, and low-quality wood unfit for most material uses. 

Wood removal from EU forests – 78% (material use of wood) – 22% (energy use of biomass)

For economic and environmental reasons, bioenergy providers in Europe do not use any type of wood indiscriminately. Other than primary forest residues, which are obtained from harvesting or thinning operations, woody biomass can be sourced from wood industry residues such as sawdust from sawmills. Historically, the European bioenergy sector has evolved to work in synergy with other wood-based industries to give value to previously unused and/or low value biomass. As a result, energy is one of the many services provided by European forests to its citizens, yet no forest in Europe is managed or harvested solely for energy purposes. On the contrary, bioenergy often provides an additional source of income for forest owners, which can be used to maintain dynamic and healthy forest holdings.

Bioenergy producers do not use high quality timber. This would be irrational and economically illogical, as it would make the price of energy generated entirely uncompetitive for end consumers. For example, in Belgium for the winter season 2016-2017, the price of 1 m3 of lumber (100-120€/m3) was almost 10 times higher than the price of 1 m3 of wood for energy (6-13 €/m3). As such, bioenergy players would not be able to match the prices offered by the timber industry. Based on this price index, using Belgian lumber to produce 1 MWh of electricity would range between 833-1,000 Euros. Instead, the price of electricity during that period ranges from 108-235 Euros.

Naturally, exemptions to the abovementioned practices exist; for instance, when timber presents irregularities or odd shapes that disqualify it from material uses, or in cases in which it is rotting or effected by diseases (fungi) and pests (insects).

Keeping European forests well managed

Contrary to common belief, forests in the EU-28 have been growing steadily over the past decades. In 1990, European forests represented a total amount of 19,7 billion m3. In 2015, EU forest reached 26 billion m3, meaning that forest stock (the total amount of wood available for harvest in forests) increased by 32% over the last quarter of a century. This growth is due to the increase in forested areas and the growth of standing volumes. According to Eurostat, the EU’s forest coverage gained 322,800 hectares every year, meaning that European forests are increasing by the size of a football field every minute. On average, about 62% of the annual forest increment in Europe is actually felled, meaning that 38% of this annual increment remains in the forests. The situation can vary from country to country, of course. Forest spreading is more common in the Mediterranean region, in countries like Italy, France, Spain, and Slovenia, where at least 40% of the annual increment remains untouched.

The European forest stock (the total amount of wood available for harvest in forests) increased by 32% over the last quarter of a century.

European forests are increasing by the size of a football field every minute. Source: Eurostat

The fact that forest stock keeps increasing is positive news for Europe because forests can act as sinks which sequester carbon. This also creates challenges for an increasingly urbanized Europe to maintain and mobilize the full potential of its forests. According to the latest State of Europe’s Forests Report, 3% of the total forestarea in Europe is damaged, most commonly by biotic agents such as insects and pests. The amount of deadwood, particularly standing deadwood, has increased slightly in most of Europe’s regions over the past 20 years. A lack of control or management can generate additional concerns and result in natural disasters such as forest fires, especially in the Mediterranean region. In 2015 alone, there were over 58,000 forest fires in Europe, spanning a total surface of more than 256,000 hectares. Bioenergy can play a major role in preventing forest degradation thanks to the extra income it provides forest owners, municipalities and governments, to manage their forests sustainably in the long-run.

In addition to creating local jobs, woody biomass provides a fuel that is made for local communities, providing a de factosolution to one of Europe’s key problems: its underlying energy dependency. With the economic downturn of the early 2010s, some might have assumed that the peak of European energy imports had been reached; however, history proved them wrong. In 2017, Europe’s energy dependency reached 72% – almost 7% higher than in 2015 – and in February 2018, fossil operators such as the Russian gas company, Gazprom, announced historical records in terms of volumes exported to Europe. Bioenergy offers a strong and reliable renewable alternative, with only 4.85% of woody biomass for energy imported from outside the EU. This means that 95% of the EU’s bioenergy consumption is locally sourced. Woody biomass fuel prices are also more stable than gas or oil prices. At a time when energy poverty is becoming a key topic in many EU Member States, solid bioenergy could provide price security and reliability to consumers.

95% of the EU’s bioenergy consumption is locally sourced… and biomass fuel prices are more stable than oil and gas prices…

What about the future?

The potential for sustainable woody bioenergy development is subject to debate, as it depends on many variables and assumptions. Simple estimates on forest biomass potential that could be mobilized for energy can be derived from the current size of forests, forest removals and forest bioenergy sector of a given country. The International Energy Agency (IEA Bioenergy) estimated the potential for forest biomass mobilization for energy use: 180,000 ktoe of forest biomass can be mobilized for energy if current mobilization logistics are optimized, the proportion of sustainably-managed forests are increased, and the quality management of mobilized biomass is improved. The primary energy production of forest biomass in the EU-28 was 85,278 ktoe in 2015, indicating there is still room for an increase in forest biomass mobilization. Had forest biomass mobilization reached 180,000 ktoe, it would have replaced 67% of the gross inland consumption of solid fossil fuel used in 2015.

*ktoe= kilotonne of oil equivalent. A unit of measure often used to compare energy content across fuels rather than volumes) 

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