RWE: ‘We will not achieve the climate targets without biomass’

RWE: ‘We will not achieve the climate targets without biomass’

Wind and sun are the driving forces behind the energy transition, but more is needed to achieve the climate goals. Biomass plays a crucial role in this, says Taco Douma, director of coal, gas and biomass plants at RWE. This can also be done sustainably by using residual flows. One of those residual flows is bagasse, a fiber from sugar cane waste.

Brazil is the largest sugar cane producer in the world; in 2017 the country produced no less than 650 megatons. It is mainly made of sugar and bio-ethanol. Bagasse is what remains after the juice is squeezed from the sugar cane stems. The term comes from the French baggage and literally means waste.

Previously, bagasse was also regarded as such, as were the large amounts of straw that remained on the land after processing the sugar cane. Straw was immediately burned, which in addition to wasting a valuable raw material also caused a lot of fine dust and CO2 emissions. Bagasse was eventually used to produce process heat locally and with relatively low efficiency. In 2016, Brazil introduced a ban on the incineration of such “waste” in the open air. By now using straw in local heating processes, bagasse could be cleared for high-value applications.

CO2-free adjustable power
For energy company RWE, residual flows such as bagasse play an important role in the energy transition. The company aims to be climate neutral by 2040 and is committed to a range of solutions to achieve this. “We are expanding our share of wind and solar energy, which are the most important carriers in the energy transition. But a reliable energy supply requires more than sun and wind, ”says Taco Douma, director of coal, gas and biomass plants.

No matter how many wind and solar parks the Netherlands installs, there will always be periods when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow. That is why RWE in the Netherlands wants to eventually replace the coal that the company still burns with biomass. “We must have some form of CO2-free adjustable power to fill those gaps. Biomass is a solution for this. But then we have to produce and use it sustainably, ”says Douma.

Residual flows
The fact that bagasse is a residual stream already makes it a sustainable form of biomass. But there are more sustainable aspects, according to the report “Good farming, good energy”, a study commissioned by RWE and Raízen. For example, sugar cane extracts CO2 from the air and stores it underground. In addition, the stems can be cut in such a way that the plant grows back within 12 to 18 months, without having to replant.
When using biomass, the main thing is that there is no competition with the food chain and that land use is handled responsibly. That is also the reason that RWE obtains this residual flow from Brazil and not from its own country. “The feeling often says that local is better, but the fact is that we are a relatively small and densely populated country,” says Douma. “That means we have to get a lot of raw materials from elsewhere. Then it is very nice that we can use a residual stream from Brazil, which otherwise has no useful application, for sustainable energy. Moreover, it is available in very large quantities. ” Sugarcane is the most widely produced crop on Earth, and bagasse accounts for a whopping 30 percent of its weight.

Efficiency boost
That availability can even increase if an efficiency drive is made, it is concluded in the aforementioned report. In Brazilian sugarcane cultivation, bagasse is also used for energy production, in particular to run the sugarcane mills. However, the water heaters that supply the mills are not very efficient. With more efficient processes, as much as 30 percent less bagasse would be required for the same local energy production.

Bio-based economy
Bagasse is one of the examples that show that the energy transition is much broader than a transition in the energy sector, says Douma. In addition to sugar and bioethanol, sugarcane cultivation also supplies raw materials to make biobased plastics. “All these different processes produce residual flows that you can use in other applications. In this way, sectors are linked together, ”explains Douma.

RWE itself is also putting this sector coupling into practice in the Netherlands. Together with Nouryon, Avantium, Chemport Europe and Staatsbosbeheer, the company worked on a pilot biorefinery plant in Delfzijl. There Avantium develops recyclable bioplastics, Nouryon makes raw materials for the chemical industry and RWE naturally uses the residual materials from the factory for sustainable energy generation. Douma: “I think that biomass will have a much broader application in the biobased economy. The energy sector is at the forefront of that transition, because that is relatively the simplest switchover. ”

Bio-based economy
Bagasse is one of the examples that show that the energy transition is much broader than a transition in the energy sector, says Douma. In addition to sugar and bioethanol, sugarcane cultivation also supplies raw materials to make biobased plastics. “All these different processes produce residual flows that you can use in other applications. In this way, sectors are linked together, ”explains Douma.

Business case
Linking sectors also contributes to the business case of bagasse. “You use flows that would otherwise be wasted, which also gives those flows a higher yield. That is an important point, because you ultimately have to compete with fossil energy sources. Otherwise, the entire energy transition will not get off the ground, ”says Douma.
A challenge is the fact that the current energy supply is optimized with low costs. Scale, cost reduction and innovation are therefore essential to complete the business case for new sustainable energy applications. Another reason that this sector coupling is so important, says Douma: “We need to start new chains with new partnerships to achieve that increase in scale. There are large quantities available and we are only at the beginning of chain formation, so I am confident that there is still a lot to optimize. ”
The economic feasibility also depends on what the alternatives cost. With this, Douma refers to the future price of CO2. “If gas remains cheap because there is a lot of supply of shale gas from the United States or natural gas from Russia, many users will still find it a good alternative. But it is fossil and therefore produces CO2 emissions. What price tag will be attached to that later? ”

Emotional versus rational
In addition to residual flows such as bagasse, RWE also mainly uses wood residues from abroad in power plants. The company does not use wood from Dutch forests, but wood residues from production forests abroad. Douma has something to say about the discussion surrounding the co-firing of biomass. “The emotional side of the story is that people want trees to stand. But if wood residues are removed from forests, forests will become healthier. And if wood is used to make furniture or paper or to build houses, sawdust always remains as residual stream. You can use that very responsibly for energy applications. ”
Douma prefers to focus on rational arguments. For example, according to the IPCC, biomass plays an inescapable role in the energy transition. But that, he says, does not mean that we should not discuss it. “The danger is that it is very easy to apply incorrectly. We can prevent this by using residual flows, setting strict requirements for certification and testing independently. Then you not only say that you have obtained the biomass in a sustainable way, but you can also show it. ”

According to Douma, there is no raw material or fuel in the Netherlands that has to meet such strict requirements as biomass. For example, the production and transportation of biomass should not lead to high greenhouse gas emissions and it must be guaranteed that soil quality and biodiversity are monitored. He thinks these strict requirements are justified, but it would be nice if they also applied to fossil fuels. “If you let go of these requirements on gas, we would be out of gas in no time.”

Long-term
In 20 years’ time, RWE wants to be climate neutral, at the moment the company is aiming for a CO2 reduction of 50 percent compared to 1990. “So we are ahead of the Dutch target of 25 percent for 2020. And our ambition for 2030, towards a CO2 reduction of 70 percent is higher than the European ambition of 55 percent. ”
According to Douma, it is important that governments and companies communicate honestly about what is needed to achieve these goals. A long-term vision helps with this. “Companies invest for thirty or forty years. As a government, you cannot change your position every five or ten years. Then it becomes uncertain for everyone. As a result, no one does anything. ” The Climate Agreement is therefore an important step, according to Douma. “It is now important to implement that agreement consistently.”
He concludes: “If we stick to the idea that with only wind and sun we can make society as a whole CO2 free and thus distance ourselves from any other solution, then it will not work. We need many solutions next to each other. Without biomass, we simply will not achieve the climate targets. ”

Read the original story here: (in Dutch)