Bioenergy is the largest source of renewable energy globally, accounting for 55 per cent of renewable energy usage and over six per cent of the total global energy supply, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In the EU, its use has grown by 150 per cent since 2000 in response to policy incentives, and the use of biomass – fuel from forestry, agriculture and waste streams – in power generation alone has increased fivefold. However, environmental campaigners are growing increasingly concerned about the share of biomass in global energy networks, given the sheer volume of wood needed to fulfil projected demand and the pollution caused in the combustion process.
Many scenarios foresee massive additional growth in biomass use, with some showing a 70 to 150 per cent increase in biomass use for energy and materials by 2050. This would require an area the size of Germany to be dedicated to energy crops alone – or an additional 340 million tonnes of forest wood per year – equalling 77 per cent of the net annual growth of all of the EU’s forests.
The demand is being driven by the desire to replace more carbon-intensive materials, such as cement in construction or plastic in packaging. Likewise, significant demand growth is expected for biomaterials for chemicals and plastics, an industry which could require as much as two exajoules of biomass per year depending on the use of other abatement options.
The case for biomass usage
Of course, its advocates are optimistic about the future role of biomass in a net-zero economy, and there are multiple examples of current projects which have achieved great success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by switching to biomass from traditional fossil fuels.
“Biomass is renewable if it is sourced from well managed forests,” says Gill Alker, sustainability and biomass expert at AMP Clean Energy. “To make energy from woody biomass sustainable, it is important to make sure that the global area of forestry is not reduced, by replacing any trees that are harvested. It is also important to properly manage our forests because when forests become overgrown, they stop growing, and stop taking up greenhouse gases.
“The plant material used to create biomass can be regrown and the carbon dioxide produced in burning it is re-absorbed by plant life, so it is carbon neutral when burned. In comparison, burning fossil fuels such as oil or gas release carbon into the atmosphere which has been stored for millions of years, increasing carbon emissions and planetary temperatures.”
One example of how biomass can reduce GHG emissions is at Muntons’ Stowmarket facility. AMP Clean Energy developed and funded a biomass energy centre which has helped the maltster to achieve its science-based target to reduce emissions by 45 per cent by 2025 (based on 2010 levels) ahead of schedule. The new system is expected to decarbonise 100,000,000 kilowatt hours of heat demand each year, equivalent to decarbonising the heat of more than 8,000 homes.
Additionally, AMP Clean Energy have installed a biomass energy centre which is accelerating Bunnahabhain’s journey to become Islay’s first distillery to have a net-zero emission distillation process. The on-site energy solution should enable Bunnahabhain to achieve net-zero distillation 15 years ahead of the Scotch Whisky Association’s 2040 target.
“This is an exciting new chapter for Bunnahabhain distillery and sustainable whisky production on Islay,” said Julian Patton, international supply chain director at Distell International, owner of Bunnahabhain Distillery. “The biomass energy centre makes Bunnahabhain Islay’s first distillery with a net-zero distillation process, and we are extremely proud, not only of the scale of the project but the entirely locally sourced fuelling system, which supports the island’s forests and economy.”
Identifying priorities for a limited supply
However, this is not to say that biomass can and should be considered as a solution in all cases. According to a study by Material Economics – in collaboration with the Energy Transition Commission and the European Forest Institute – urgent course correction is needed to ensure that most future biomass is reserved for use in high-value materials and certain specialist niches such as industrial heat, aviation, and shipping.
The study was the first to model the EU’s 2050 demand for plant-based feedstocks for all sectors and to compare this to a realistic biomass supply, finding a stark divergence between demand and supply.
“Biomass is scarce and valuable, and it cannot meet all needs,” asserts Per Klevnäs, partner at Material Economics. “Expectations for future use add up to 50 to 100 per cent more than what we should count on being available, so there is a massive value at stake in getting our priorities right for the limited feedstock we have. As our study shows, tomorrow’s high-value use of biomass will look very different from yesterday’s expectation, and both business leaders and policymakers will need to adjust.”
This change in perspective on the role of biomass is in stark contrast to the energy strategies of many European countries who have subsidised bulk power generation from wood alongside the build-up of first-generation biofuels industries for passenger vehicles. But neither now look likely to have any significant long-term role.
In evaluating different future scenarios, the Material Economics study revealed a remarkable difference between transition pathways. A net-zero transition with lower and more targeted biomass use is feasible and cost effective when compared with other scenarios, with annual savings of €36 billion by 2050, 140 to 370 million tonnes less CO2 emissions annually, and a land area the size of Germany – 30 to 40 million hectares – that could be put to other uses.
Achieving this scenario, however, depends on the effective deployment of alternatives to bioenergy across a wide range of applications, such as green hydrogen, synthetic fuels, power system flexibility and the availability of clean electricity. Resource efficiency and a circular economy also stand out as key factors to enable a high-value scenario, alongside technological development in alternatives to bioenergy.
Addressing greenhouse gas emissions
Environmental campaigners, however, remain concerned about the impact that burning biomass for fuel could have on local communities. According to the IEA, over 35 per cent of the bioenergy used in 2021 was from biomass for traditional cooking methods – practices that are unsustainable, inefficient, polluting and linked to five million premature deaths in 2021 alone.
Additionally, a recent Greenpeace investigation found that global power generation company, Drax, had agreed to pay out $3.2 million to settle air pollution claims against its wood pellet factories in the United States’ deep south.
The settlement agreements centre on claims against two of the company’s pellet mills based in the small Louisiana communities of Bastrop and Urania which help supply the Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, England. The investigation claims to have found evidence that Drax agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle claims raised in 2019 at its Morehouse plant in Bastrop, including failure to comply with volatile organic compounds and permitted emissions standards, and exceeding emissions for other hazardous air pollutants such as methanol, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. This came alongside a further settlement of $1.6 million for claims against its LaSalle pellet plant in Urania, Louisiana.
Drax bills itself as “the UK’s largest source of renewable electricity”, and currently receives over £2 million a day in direct UK government subsidies for green energy, according to an analysis of financial results by climate thinktank, Ember.
Commenting on the findings on the day of publication, Greenpeace UK’s policy director, Dr Doug Parr, said: “For all Drax’s appeals that biomass is clean renewable energy, the reality on the ground leaves that claim ringing hollow. Toxic fumes from its wood-chopping plants are impacting poor, marginalised communities living nearby, and Drax does not seem to be in a rush to fix the problem. It is scandalous that this polluting industry is being bankrolled by EU and UK taxpayers to the tune of millions of pounds a year.
“Public money would be better spent protecting and restoring our natural world and enhancing carbon sinks in the UK and overseas. Alongside that we should be reaching for a system based on genuinely clean and low carbon energy such as wind and solar whilst also boosting energy saving measures like insulating homes.”
With high-profile cases such as this doing little to placate the concerns of those who say that biomass should not be considered a renewable source of energy, and should therefore should have no place in a net-zero future, it is hard to imagine the debate being settled any time soon.