12 May Five questions about our largest source of sustainable energy: biomass
Last week, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency presented a report on biomass, a much discussed source of sustainable energy. Is biomass a temporary barrier for sun and wind, or indispensable for the future? And is it actually sustainable?
More and more wind farms and especially solar panels are being added, but our largest source of sustainable energy is biomass, actually nothing more than ‘vegetable material’. It serves as a raw material from paper to the chemical industry, and you can turn it into biofuels, replacing diesel and kerosene.
But the discussion is mainly about a simpler application: direct combustion, for the production of electricity and heat. For example, wood pellets are co-fired in coal-fired power stations, and biomass heat plants run completely on them.
Critical: low climate gains and threats to forests
Like coal-fired power stations, biomass plants emit CO2. Bad for the climate, unless the same amount of CO2 is removed from the air during the growth of the biomass – then biomass is (net) climate neutral, and also renewable.
But the criticism digs a little deeper. Complete forests would be cut elsewhere for the production of our wood pellets. Is this correct, and how can we guarantee sustainability? And do we actually need biomass? NU.nl asked climate researcher Bart Strengers, senior climate and biomass researcher at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency – author of a new report on the issue.
Can we do without biomass?
“A complete sustainable energy supply based on only sun and wind is theoretically possible,” says Strengers. “But the question is how realistic that is. We will have to reduce our energy consumption sharply, build windmills and solar panels at record speed, and develop techniques for the storage of the varying power supply. There is an advantage of biomass power plants for electricity in the long term: backup if the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. “
“If we want to achieve the climate goals, it is in any case a race against the clock using existing technology. We will also have to consider which route is the most affordable. These are ultimately political choices.”
Are forests being cut down for ‘green electricity’?
“According to pre-existing criteria, no natural forests should be felled. In order to achieve climate goals, they must be protected and expanded, all over the world. Woody biomass largely comes from plantations – this can be fast-growing pulpwood or production forest that grows and is slower laid out for saw wood. “
“The rest of the wood is then used for wood boards, paper and now increasingly wood pellets. But wood pellets for electricity have no future, and will no longer be subsidized after 2026.”
“Incidentally, there are indeed indications that it does not always go well with the origin of biomass. That really needs to be researched properly. But my impression is that it does not happen structurally. And I have spoken to many people and plowed reports.”
When is biomass officially ‘sustainable’?
“In the EU, we have strict criteria: at least a 70 percent reduction in CO2 across the chain; mandatory replanting; no natural forest; no land use change; protection of carbon soils; no loss of biodiversity – and much more. It is also closely monitored. would be a big step if our food and feed production met this requirement. “
Can we produce our own biomass in the Netherlands?
“If we see biomass as a serious energy option, the answer is no. Our production capacity can grow slightly, but not enough for our energy consumption. In the Netherlands, we can obtain biomass from crop residues, sewage sludge and algae, for example.
Is the world going to use more and more biomass?
“In order to stay below the agreed 1.5 degrees of warming, in almost all scenarios we will have to get a lot of CO2 out of the air net in thirty years’ time. Practically, this is almost impossible without biomass: using CO2 storage on biomass plants it is possible to produce energy with ‘negative emissions’. The global production of biomass will then have to be much higher than it is now. “