Several technologies can convert biomass into heat and electricity, all based on two main process technologies: thermochemical (combustion, pyrolysis and gasification) and biochemical / biological (digestion and fermentation). Bioenergy technologies are in different stages of development, from commercial status (biomass combustion, biogas production) to near commercial and demonstration (thermal gasification) to research and pilot stage (pyrolysis). Large-scale combustion of organic waste and residues is already providing energy at a competitive price, despite the difficulties some biomass technologies have of competing with fossil fuels, partly because of the diversity of feedstock, with its different physical and chemical characteristics.
A wide range of biomass materials can be used to generate bioenergy: fuelwood, wood residues, forest residues, agricultural waste and residues, residues from food and paper industries, municipal solid wastes, sewage sludge and dedicated energy crops, such as Short Rotation Forestry/Short Rotation Coppice (SRF/SRC) and energy grasses. Traditional biomass, including wood fuel, continues to be an important source of energy. New, compacted forms of better quality biomass, such as wood pellets and briquettes, are increasingly used, despite their higher cost. Some largescale plants, up to a few tenths of MWe, currently use straw and forestry residues.
There is a dynamic and expanding market (18% per year) for the use of biomass pellets for domestic heating instead of burning wood logs. Biomass and municipal solid waste (MSW) co-firing with coal in existing boilers is a low cost option for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions by substituting biomass for coal, with a significantly higher combustion efficiency (30-40 %) than dedicated biomass plants (when run on a large scale). Collection of methane-rich gas from landfill sites is economically viable and has been deployed on a large scale. Pyrolysis - the conversion of biomass to liquid, solid and gaseous fractions - is currently drawing interest, but more research is needed to make it commercially viable.
The main R&D priority is the development of advanced conversion processes and bio-refineries, i.e. integrated conversion plants for biofuels and bio-products and there is a crucial need to demonstrate and scale-up bioenergy technologies on a relevant industrial scale.
The newly set-up European Industrial Initiative proposes an ambitious demonstration programme of different bio-energy pathways at a scale appropriate to the level of their maturity - building up to 30 pilot plants, pre-commercial demonstration or full industrial scale plants across Europe.
A longer-term research programme will support development of the bio-energy industry beyond 2020, costing an estimated EUR 9 billion over the next 10 years.
The main technological objectives of the programme are the following:
- Bring to commercial maturity the currently, most promising technologies and value-chains through the development and optimisation of feedstock-flexible thermochemical pathways and biochemical pathways, in order to promote large-scale, single production units or large number of smaller units , sustainable production of advanced biofuels and highly efficient heat & power from biomass. This will require scaling up and optimization of process integration, with a focus on the improvement of feedstock flexibility, energy and carbon efficiency, capex efficiency, reliability and maintenance of plants.
- Contribute to a set of activities in the field of biomass feedstock availability assessment, production, management and harvesting in support of the scaling-up of promising technologies. Biomass availability, production and harvesting are not specific to the bioenergy use of biomass and are to be addressed in a coherent effort shared with relevant stakeholders and initiatives, local and national authorities, farming associations and European Technology Platforms, such as Plants for the Future and Forestry.
- Develop a longer term R&D programme to support the Bioenergy industry development beyond 2020.
The use of renewable energy sources for heating has substantial potential for growth, since the heating and cooling sector represent about 50 % of final energy consumption.
Growth in the use of biomass for heating and cooling has been rather slow compared to the growth rates in the renewable electricity and transport sectors. Biomass must play a crucial role in meeting the 20 % target for renewables by 2020 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the EU-27.
The cost competitiveness of bioenergy production remains a key barrier in the deployment of biomass technologies. Deployment of bioenergy requires demonstration projects at a relevant industrial scale, which are costly but crucial for improving and certifying technical performance, as well as reducing costs.
A lack of long-term policies has also discouraged investment in bioenergy technologies, preventing their deployment at the larger scale. Member States have addressed this by introducing a range of incentives, including research programmes, tax reduction and exemptions, investment subsidies and feed-in tariffs for renewables.
Sustainable biomass production and the reliable supply of feedstocks is a critical factor for successful large scale deployment of bioenergy. Biomass resources are a limiting factor for power plant size, determining its collection radius and economics.
Large-scale production of energy crops (SRF/SRC and energy grasses) can be a solution for increased biomass supply due to their favourable economic and environmental characteristics.
Further research is needed to establish various bioenergy technologies, to develop better approaches to improve bioenergy production and system integration and to increase cost effectiveness, as well as demonstrate technologies at an industrial scale.
Technological development is expected to improve process efficiency in direct combustion, gasification systems, anaerobic digestion, gas treatment and the introduction of higher performance Organic Rankine Cycles (ORC), steam cycles and biomass gasification combined cycle systems. More research effort should be devoted to upstream areas, such as feedstock production.
Coordination with the non-energy based biomass industry, and between biomass use for heat and electricity and for biofuels is of prime importance. A cross-sectoral coordination between agriculture, forestry, pulp and paper and wood processing industry is required. A long-term and coherent policy framework, an innovative financing mechanism and harmonisation of incentives and regulations across the EU all need to be put into place before the technology reaches commercial maturity.
Bioenergy production reached 86.6 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2007: 66.4 Mtoe from solid biomass, 6 Mtoe from biogas, 6.1 Mtoe from municipal solid waste (MSW) and 8.1 Mtoe from biofuels. Solid biomass use for energy had increased from 44.8 Mtoe in 1995, an increase of 21.6 Mtoe (48 %).
Of the total biomass, 66 % is used for heat production, 31 % for electricity and cogeneration and 3 % for liquid fuels. By 2020, the contribution to the EU energy mix from cost-competitive bioenergy, used in accordance with the sustainability criteria of the EU's new Renewable Energy Sources Directive could be at least 14%. Wood and residues from forestry and wood processing are the main sources for bioenergy (85 %), followed by waste (10 %) and by agricultural biomass (5%).
For further information:
European Biomass Industry Association