A case for Common European Biomass Policy (part 1)

June 17, 2013 | 00:00

A case for Common European Biomass Policy (part 1)

The issue of biomass policy has been very much prominent on policy-makers’ horizons over the course of last decades, as the EU and its Member States struggled to cope with the climate change and a coordinated response to it. In brief, biomass (and more generally biofuels) was initially considered a renewable source of energy par excellence. Still, with developments and advances of the wind and solar power generation, this feeling subdued somehow. Biomass started to look “dirty”, deemed to prolong the coal use, and as if the wind and solar power generation had a zero carbon footprint.

GDF Suez biomass power plant in Polaniec, Poland
(c) GDF Suez
They are not as clean as they are sometimes portrayed, and biomass looks indeed interesting and promising at a closer look. In fact, today, having experienced two decades of development of the Renewable Energy Sources (RES), it seems the more volatile sources of renewable energy like wind and solar depend on a more stable and flexible biomass. Otherwise, we would not have a stable and sustainable combined source of renewable energy generation for the future.

One of the most interesting aspects of the RES development in Europe has been different trajectories of the RES development practiced by the EU member states. Quite naturally, while the southern countries pressed for solar based power generation, those in the west part pushed for wind farms, those in the north pushed for hydro generation, while some of those in the north and middle, like Poland, were among the first to develop biomass for heat and electricity generation [note 1]. In fact, Poland has been one of the frontrunners of biomass use for power generation.

Figure 1: Electricity generation from biomass; cases of 8 countries with combined share of over 75% of the EU27 total (in TWh)

Source: AEBIOM, European Biomass Association, European Bioenergy Outlook 2012. Statistical Report, November 2012, p. 83, http://www.aebiom.org/wpcontent/uploads/file/AEBIOM Statistical 
Report/AEBIOM_European Bioenergy Outlook 2012sv.pdf
(accessed: 5.05.2013).

For that reason, lessons learnt, the experiences of those countries could be useful to act as a food for thought or considerations by other countries and at the EU level as a whole, too.

Reasons for the Common European Biomass Policy

The main EU objective within its climate change policy is to limit CO2 emissions by 20% as compared to the emissions of 1990, by year 2020, as we all know it. Currently, there is on-going natural debate on what the EU should do thereafter, in particular with the 2030 horizon in mind, and 2050 as a more distant strategic point in time. These considerations direct our thinking on renewable sources of energy also toward biomass.

Moreover, biomass seems one of the important tools to contribute to European energy security, by building up and strengthening a source that is essentially local and European. Its development in the European Union would naturally contribute to creating and maintaining jobs, mainly in the countryside. Clearly, any public policy has to take into account those perspectives, in particular if we need to address the climate change problems, combined with competitiveness of the European industries facing forces of globalization, and to address development aspects of both intra-EU and global players.

Any future public EU policy on biomass should strive to lay out a stable and consistent policy framework. It could very well be part of the EU’s common agricultural policy, since the very basics of biomass are indeed parts of our European agriculture and forests. At the same time, the future common biomass policy should have a clear objective: at some point in time to make biomass arrive at a grid parity, thus making it competitive with all other energy sources, with costs of CO2 emissions included, in particular the fossil fuels.

Today, a common European biomass policy would need to set the standards for biomass sustainability and production. It would also need to take into account the biomass production carbon footprint, including its transportation. In the European Commission’s projections about future energy development, biomass always plays an important role, also in its most recent assessments [note 2].

In fact, Poland has been one of the frontrunners of biomass use for power generation.
Clearly, biomass development cannot be left to the markets alone without a carefully crafted public policy. If the biomass supply is well organized, and would be able to grasp potential of woodlands residues and agriculture wastes, negative potential of competition between lands for foodstuffs and wood for furniture and pulp for paper can be avoided. It all calls for a properly set public policy. The individual EU member states’ public policies on biomass have been tested, and we do not have clear perspective on European biomass and its future.

Biomass flexibility

Important aspects of biomass are its flexibility – always from the point of view of energy generation – and its natural characteristics that were with us ever since we were able to control fire. It provides for a source of energy that is at the same time flexible – it can be used for energy generation at humans’ will- , and usable in an on-off fashion, which is entirely impossible in the case of other renewable sources of energy. This argument should not be understood as one pointing against other RES, in particular wind and solar farms which naturally depend on weather conditions: if there is no wind and no sunshine, there is no electricity, to simplify the argument. Here, and precisely for this reason, biomass can and should play a pivotal role as a systemic backup of the electricity generation, very much the way as traditional backbone systemic power stations are considered, fuelled either by coal or by nuclear fission. Any electricity system faces this dilemma, recognized by the German Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) as the one still without solution [note 3]. In fact, biomass can provide an answer, but indeed it needs to be a European one, and hence again the need for a common biomass policy.

This capability of biomass to be used at will by energy generating operators, thus buffering the volatility of other renewable sources, derives from another natural yet especially interesting feature of biomass that should be taken into account when the European system of energy security and provision is taken into account in a sustainable way. Namely, biomass is in fact a way of storing energy. In other words, the energy can be stored in form of biomass for further, later use in different places and facilities. It can be easily transformed into more energy efficient forms and transported to place of use. As such, coupled with its ability to support volatile other RES, biomass can be considered as a energy storage form, that is so difficult and so costly to attain for electricity.

This specificity still cannot be read as arguing for dispersed biomass storage, comparable to batteries and accumulators of today and in the future. For sure those will be easily replaced, and certainly not by biomass, and they also need to be developed further as possibly the weakest point of human ability to master energy. However, biomass can and should support electricity generation in large combustion plants, where it can be stored and used at will, precisely when wind stops and night falls.

The biomass flexibility, including its storage, increases with biomass transformation. A

Biomass can provide an answer, but indeed it needs to be a European one, and hence again the need for a common biomass policy.
s with other RES, there is a technology progress stimulated by the EU derived member states’ public policies on renewable resources. Interestingly, in Poland and in the Netherlands [note 4] the second generation technology on biomass is well advanced and provide an opportunity to produce biomass that is torrefied into a standardised form of pellets that are hydrophobic, easily storable and resistant to biological processes [note 5].

The second generation of biomass technology, for example BO2, offers interesting venues for further development of public policies for its use regarding climate action. It seems relatively cheap, with combined total costs of its production calculated to reach 112 Euro per tonne of highly concentrated BO2 pellets [note 6]. It could be made of any source of biomass, including waste from woodlands (spruce, pine, etc.) and agriculture (straw, grass, etc.) [note 7].

Compatibility of biomass with other RES

Biomass flexibility of use combined with its ability to be stored and to accumulate energy within, amounts altogether to its compatibility with other renewable sources of energy, specifically wind and solar. In other words, the renewable sources of energy of today cannot exclude either of the trio that looms as the masters of future energy: biomass, wind and photovoltaic energy. One of the fundamental problems of wind and solar is their inherent volatility. The power generation volatility gets absorbed within the electricity grid thus forcing physical streams of energy seeking their output through neighbours’ systems. In case of the Czech Republic, it forced its electricity system operator to isolate their system from the German one, in order to avoid circular electricity movement, unwanted in the Czech Republic.

Given the contemporary context of financial and economic crisis it would not be unwise to consider a cheaper option of a gradual and continuous adaptation of the electricity generation system. This would naturally imply using the existing systems based on coal and lignite in order to upgrade them with the biomass into the so-called co-combustion to burn biomass together with classic fossil fuels. It has been calculated that co-combustion of 20% of solid biomass together with 80% of coal in large electricity production plants saves up to almost half of CO2 and its equivalents, as compared to simple coal burning [note 8]. This strategy, sometimes referred to as unwelcome prolongation of the coal and lignite use, could in fact be regarded as a gradual shift-over from the fossil fuels into more renewable resources based energy mix, with due regard to the economic costs of the transformation. It would also mirror an earlier transition of the EU environmental policy from one based on BAT (best available technology) approach toward more economic friendly BATNEEC (best available technology not entailing excessive costs) [note 9]. This way, the contemporary climate change transition patterns might follow the paths of environmental transition of 1990s.

As we all learned at school, biomass is about CO2 absorption during vegetation when any plant actually stores carbon C within its body as a way of building it up for which it needs photosynthesis.

In consequence, the Leopoldina observations argue in fact for a diversification of the energy mix of renewables, that includes all – solar, biomass and wind power generation.
When we burn biomass, the biomass stored carbon is actually released back to the atmosphere in form of CO2. In principle and in practice, the life cycle of biomass used for energy generation – if and when it comes from well managed sustainable sources of biomass from agricultural waste or woodlands’ waste – should revolve around zero [note 10]. In other words, the amount of carbon captured from atmosphere during vegetation should roughly equal the amount of carbon released back to atmosphere in form of CO2.

Moreover, when biomass waste is left decaying, either in agriculture or in forests, it naturally emits methane. Since methane is considered about 23-25 times more powerful for its greenhouse effect as compared to CO2, the issue needs our attention. When burned, the waste – while still emitting CO2 – becomes more greenhouse friendly. Of course, not all wastes can and should be burned, as the wastes are partially necessary for re-carbonisation of the soil stocks. Yet, from that perspective, burning biomass appears methane saving [note 11].

There are three important modifications of this reasoning. One points to additional problems with the biomass life cycle. Two others show its specific positive aspects, if used as renewable source of energy generation.

A German research points out that the use of biomass may not be neutral for the environment and that it poses important problems [note 12]. In short, the Leopoldina analysts argue that the biomass vegetation needs also other elementary ingredients than carbon C, such as nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorus and metals that are needed for plant construction. Those need to be taken out of soil, eventually fertilized, and then get released to atmosphere when biomass burns. Also, biomass management, both in agriculture and woodlands, necessitate GHGs emissions associated with management human activities. And finally, they point out that if the land would not be used for biomass production, it would naturally turn back into woodlands, thus contributing to its carbon stocking capacity in soil and plants for a longer time.

Those are legitimate concerns. And they would stand against use of biomass, if not for the fact that production of any kind of energy – following contemporarily applicable technologies – does indeed pose the same kind of problems. In practice, any human activity to produce energy, either in management of woods, intensive agriculture, or wind farms manufacturing, or production and assembly of photovoltaic panels or concentrators provoke emissions of GHGs and thus limit their climate action potential. Still, any advantage of all RES should be compared to other ways and sources of energy production, rather than between themselves in order to presumably select the best technology available today. This simply falls against any technology advances of the future. In consequence, the Leopoldina observations argue in fact for a diversification of the energy mix of renewables, that includes all – solar, biomass and wind power generation. All, however, should follow equal sustainability criteria, that would include carbon foot printing of production, preparation, transportation, and usage, as well as post-life utilization. Having them all taken into account we would observe a natural rebalancing of carbon positions of various renewable energy production sources against each other, depending on and following on changes in technology used for facilities’ building and production, raw materials’ processing, energy generation and transmission. This, again, speaks in favour of a broad mix of RES in our future energy consumption.

Part 2 of this article can be found here.



  1. For example, the three northern countries: SE, FI and PL were the frontrunners in their combined heat and power generation capacities with biomass in absolute terms of electricity produced (TWh) for 2009-2010, see: AEBIOM, European Biomass Association, European Bioenergy Outlook 2012. Statistical Report, November 2012, p. 85, http://www.aebiom.org/wpcontent/uploads/file/AEBIOM Statistical Report/AEBIOM_European Bioenergy Outlook 2012sv.pdf (accessed: 5.05.2013).
  2. European Commission, Report on sustainability requirements for the use of solid and gaseous biomass sources in electricity, heating and cooling, COM(2010)11 final, Brussels 25.2.2010;
    European Commission, Renewable energy progress report, COM(2013)175 final, Brussels 27.03.2013.
  3. Paul Hockenos, Profile: Jochen Homann, Marathon Man for the Energiewende, “European Energy Review”, Report 22 April 2012, /index.php?id=4089 (accessed, 22.04.2013).
  4. See: Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, http://www.ecn.nl/home/; Instytut Badawczo-Wdro¿eniowy Maszyn w Olsztynie.
  5. More see: Jan W. Dubas, Stan i kierunki rozwoju biomasy dla potrzeb elektroenergetyki polskiej, in: Franciszek Krawiec (ed.), Odnawialne Ÿród³a energii w œwietle globalnego kryzysu energetycznego. Wybrane problemy, Difin, Warszawa 2010, p. 95-115.
  6. J. H. A. Kiel, F. Verhoeff, H. Gerhauser, B. Meuleman, BO2 – technology for biomass upgrading into solid fuel pilot scale testing and market implementation¸16th European Biomass Conference & Exhibition, 2-6 June 2008, Valencia, Spain.
  7. R.W.R. Zwart, J.H.A. Kiel, F. Verhoeff, J.R. Pels, Torrefaction Quality Control Based on logistic & end-user requirements, Presented at the 2011 International Conference on Thermo Chemical Biomass Conversion Science, TC Biomass 2011, Sep 28, 2011 - Sep 30, 2011, Chicago, IL, http://www.ecn.nl/docs/library/report/2011/l11107.pdf (accessed 24.04.2013).
  8. Jarosùaw Zuwaùa, Efekty ekologiczne wspóùspalania biomasy, XLVIII Spotkanie Forum Energia – Efekt – Úrodowisko, Narodowy Fundusz Ochrony Úrodowiska, Warszawa, 11.10.2012.
  9. Alberta Sbragia, Environmental Policy. Economic Constraints and External Pressures, in: Helen Wallace, William Wallace (ed.), Policy Making in the European Union, OUP, Oxford 2000, p. 308-311.
  10. For example, Vattenfall claims that its combined heat and power utility in Motala, Sweden has been carbon neutral in practice, see: Vattenfall AB, Research and Development in Energy Sector. Energy system for the future.
  11. Jarosùaw Zuwaùa, Efekty ekologiczne wspóùspalania biomasy, XLVIII Spotkanie Forum Energia – Efekt – Úrodowisko, Narodowy Fundusz Ochrony Úrodowiska, Warszawa, 11.10.2012.
  12. German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, Bioenergy – Chances and limits, Halle 2012.



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