Bioenergy and the transition to a modern bioeconomy

by David Baxter, Consultant

4 February 2020 | Reading 11 mins.

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Many forms of biomass are increasingly used to generate heat for buildings and electricity for power grids. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that all possible forms of renewable energy, including bioenergy, will be needed to completely replace fossil energy. All possible sustainable sources of biomass will therefore be needed; however, biomass comes in many different forms and from many different dispersed locations, complicating this challenge.

According to European legislation (Directive (EU) 2018/2001 on the promotion of the use of renewable energy from renewable sources, ‘biomass’ refers to the biodegradable fraction of products including waste and residues of biological origin from agriculture, (both vegetal and animal), forestry and related industries, fisheries and aquaculture, as well as industrial and municipal wastes. Therefore, substances of biological origin include all plants, crops and their residues that make up the vegetal component of our food supply, non-food animal feed crops, wild plants and vegetation, all components of trees and forest products, seaweed, residues from fishing and animal husbandry (including slurries and manure), as well as all the biodegradable wastes from food production and human sewage. The list is almost endless, but the essential common denominator is the biodegradability of biomass, which contrasts with the most fossil-derived products. The time for biodegradability and regrowth of biomass takes from months to a few decades and it is this relatively short-term cycle that affords biomass is renewable status.

Bioenergy is considered in the same legal frame as other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power and together they contribute to relatively small but growing percentages of energy use in most economies. Increasingly, individual countries are planning fossil-free economies by 2050 in response to the agreed global warming targets (namely the 2017 UNFCCC target to limit a global temperature rise this century to less than 2oC above pre-industrial levels and to make efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5oC). The current increase in temperature is already close to 1.1oC.

All plants – whether food for humans or animals or non-food vegetal biomass – grow by the process of photosynthesis which removes carbon dioxide (CO2) and releases oxygen back into the atmosphere. Biomass growth is vital to ensuring the main way that CO2 is extracted from the atmosphere and in providing environments where biodiversity is maintained.

It is now scientifically established beyond doubt that the steady accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is the root cause of global warming. Release of the previously permanently stored carbon in the form of coal, oil and natural gas from the earth’s crust has not been counterbalanced by carbon capture. The key challenge is how the world’s economies can return to a situation where emissions to the atmosphere and carbon capture can be brought back into balance. Thus there is a very important future role for biomass in tackling climate change.

Roles for Biomass in a Bioeconomy

Biomass already serves many purposes in modern and developing societies for energy and increasingly for non-energy products that are already contributing to a growing bioeconomy. Woody biomass has always been used in buildings and continues to be used in this way. As a building material, the carbon stored in wood remains stored for as long as the building stands and sometimes after that if reused before disposal. Cooking and domestic heating using biomass as a fuel have long been used and continue to be used in both developed and developing countries, and increasingly with modern technologies that drastically reduce pollution and risks to health. Millions of tons of woody biomass are used to replace some of the coal as a fuel (co-firing) in large scale power plants electricity generation. However, arguments exist concerning low efficiency of conversion to useful energy and the huge amount of biomass needed that could exceed the annual regrowth in a defined area.

Biofuels for transport are used in various parts of the world. Brazil’s pioneering production and use of biofuels for transport around fifty years ago was followed in the last two decades or so by large biofuels programs particularly in the USA and the EU as a way of reducing fossil fuels use in road transport. These programs have achieved a lot while at the same time raising a number of issues with relation to use of biomass, food (e.g. maize and wheat) and hence the food versus fuel debate, and the direct or indirect effects of land use change (LUC/ILUC) because of the use of additional land needed for biofuels production. These issues have been addressed extensively in European Biomass Conference and Exhibition (EUBCE) events over the last few years. Concerning technologies, biofuels have provided a very useful path for rapid development of biorefineries. From the point of resource efficiency, biorefineries aim to make use of all possible residues and process side streams to produce a wide array of bio-based chemicals, biomaterials, energy carriers and energy to replace even more fossil-based counterparts while at the same time enhancing financial viability. Biorefining is slowly replacing the classic mineral oil refineries of the fossil age. Biorefineries, and the principles behind biorefining provide key foundations of the emerging modern bioeconomy. There is a long way to go to reach full commercial operation, but biorefineries are both well recognized by policy-makers and are becoming progressively more attractive to commercial operators and probably most importantly their products have growing attractions to the wider public who want to buy them because of their association with not contributing to global warming.

The pre-industrial revolution bioeconomies comprised traditional bio-based activities, ranging from the production of food, animal feed and fiber for non-food products, as well as forest products. The modern emerging bioeconomy encompasses biomaterials and biochemicals production, along with traditional bio-based products for the global industrial age. The European Biomass Conference and Exhibition (EUBCE) tackles already some of the non-energy sectors such as biochemical and biomaterials and biorefineries. Bioeconomy necessarily encompasses a very wide range of economic sectors dealing with the growth of biomass, conversion, application and marketing of bioproducts and biochemicals from biogenic sources. The EUBCE in Marseille in 2020 is further expanding its portfolio from energy-related biomass production and conversion of bio-based feedstock to other sectors of the economy and is fully integrating bioeconomy into its conference program.

Challenges for the Development of Biomass Use as a Renewable Resource

There are many challenges in the expansion of renewables in the world’s economies as they move to tackle the threats posed by climate change. The challenges are both technological and political policy development on a global scale.

To date, there has been little emphasis on deciding which, if any, processing routes should be preferred to use the available biomass. Many studies have been carried out to assess the amount of biomass potentially available for energy and the wider bioeconomy. EUBCE continues to present and discuss arguments for and against specific topics like the impacts of land use change and the environmental sustainability of taking biomass from certain types of land or from land in certain locations.

Historically, large-scale electricity generation provided base load to electricity grids. Base load is still needed but new biomass technologies are increasingly required to build in operating flexibility in order balance electricity grids and more closely meet customer demand. Controllable, flexible power output also offers an opportunity for energy generators to earn additional income from grid operators. Grid balancing is one component of the EUBCE program and that brings together both researchers and the wider renewable industry operators to discuss opportunities for integration.

Replacement of fossil fuels for transport is achieved in part by substitution with biofuels. Electromobility is growing rapidly and while the source of electricity must be free from fossil CO2 emissions, this method of propulsion is growing in acceptance. However, electric power is not viable for the medium- and long-distance aviation sector where high energy density fuel is needed. With current and foreseeable technologies, the only viable alternative fuels are liquid hydrocarbon fuels mainly made from biomass, although electrofuels are also being considered. Significant development is needed in the field of aviation fuels.

Technologies for biomass conversion to energy carriers (fuels), biomaterials, biochemicals and all manner of consumer bioproducts are almost without exception currently at very small or pilot scale. Scale-up introduces many challenges, not least cost reduction, but also how processes work at large scale not always mirrors what happens at small scale. Breaking into existing fossil-derived product markets and developing new markets for bioproducts need concentrated efforts, also in the areas of social awareness and consumer education.

The Specific Role of EUBCE

The European Biomass Conferences and Exhibition has grown from a small research community biomass conference more than 30 years ago into a well-established international conference, tackling challenges ranging from biomass growth and biomass conversion to bioenergy, biofuels and bioproducts, environmental and economic sustainability and government policies. The conference provides a forum for showcasing industrial implementation of technologies enabling the transition away from fossil fuels economies.

The 28th EUBCE in 2020 will include key sessions aiming to dig deep into the structure, components and role of the emerging bioeconomy in Europe and across the world and to provide plenty of opportunities to present, to listen to and to discuss the fine details of technology developments, options for mitigation of adverse environmental and climate impacts and engage in policy debates. Research results from all stages of development will continue to form the core of the conference addressing the bioeconomy, the thread that links all facets of the growth and utilization of biomass now and in the future.

The organizers would like to invite all active workers in the field of biomass utilization, and indeed all people with an interest in being part of the emerging bioeconomy, to attend the event from April 27th to 30th, 2020 in Marseille, France.

Conclusions

Biomass has been used for thousands of years by humans for heating and cooking as well as for essential tools, clothing and for buildings. Prior to the start of the industrial revolution over two hundred years ago humans lived in bioeconomies, albeit far less luxurious than our current fossil fueled economies. Only in recent years have countries set objectives to reverse the negative effects of fossil fuel usage and to steer national economies towards carbon neutrality. A rapid increase in the generation capacity of fossil-free energy is needed as well as fossil-free products. There is a desperate and urgent need for countries to reinvent modern bioeconomies that work alongside other renewable sources of energy and non-fossil consumer products. Biomass has important roles to play.

International consensus exists on protecting boreal forests and tropical rainforests and ensuring increasing net stored carbon stock in the world’s forests and wetlands. Questions arise as to how much biomass, woody or otherwise, can be harvested annually so that overall biomass stock and its health and biodiversity are preserved.

Use of biomass, mainly woody biomass, in electricity generation at large scale (co-firing) is already commercially successful but is achieved at relatively low conversion efficiency, mainly because existing fossil technologies are used instead of dedicated renewable energy technologies.

Biorefineries are developing and growing quickly, albeit from a very small base. While the early biorefineries struggled to find markets for their bio-products there are very encouraging signs that public acceptance of fossil-free products has improved rapidly over recent years.

Policy is critical to support almost any developing technology and must be directly supported by sound scientific knowledge. The EUBCE has regularly debated key topics from biomass production, to land use and land use change, CO2 (and CO2 equivalent) emissions savings due to biomass use, technology implementation (e.g. biofuels), technology integration with other renewables, and to the overarching questions related to global warming targets (1.5oC or 2oC).

There is a strong need for implementation of the most resource efficient conversion technologies for use of the limited biomass resource and to work to achieve economic viability within the frame of emerging and new international climate change driven policies.

Identifying and promoting viable renewable biomass derived alternatives for the world’s economy of the future is at the core of the European Biomass Conference and Exhibition (EUBCE).

References

European Biomass Conference and Exhibition (EUBCE), http://www.eubce.com/eubce-2020.html

Directive (EU) 2018/2001 ‘on the promotion of the use of renewable energy from renewable sources’

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018)

International Energy Agency (IEA)


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