Without biomass, energy agreement is unfeasible

Without biomass, energy agreement is unfeasible

What will the energy supply in the Netherlands look like in 2050? Is there still room for biomass, especially as a source of heat, or are alternatives available? A lot can happen in three decades (or not), so it keeps looking coffee grounds. In the short term, however, our country will desperately need biomass to meet its CO2 reduction targets.

To hit the hard targets. With the signing of the Paris Agreement, our country has committed itself to reducing CO2 emissions by 49 and 95% respectively (compared to 1990) by 2030 and 2050. If all signatories (including the US) adhere to this, global warming will remain below two degrees – preferably one and a half degrees. This is a scenario, according to the IPCC, in which the effects of warming remain within the limit.

To meet these targets, countries will need to switch to low-carbon or renewable energy and continue to accelerate phasing out fossil energy or using non-CO2 emissions.

The Netherlands, which has traditionally relied heavily on natural gas and oil, seems to have more difficulty with this at this time than other countries. Various measurements (Eurostat, PBL) show that ‘we’ use the lowest percentage of renewable energy in the EU. In 2018, this was still 7.4 percent, now it is hiccu and 10%.

Hefty shovel

In the short term, read at the end of this year, the Netherlands will not meet the target of 14% agreed in the Energy Agreement. Well, according to the PBL, the Netherlands has caught up with part of the backlog and can still meet the interim target of 16% by 2023, according to Michiel Hekkenberg, researcher at the PBL.

“A large number of wind farms are expected to be completed this year (2020, ed.) connected to the grid. Many projects have been approved in recent years. If there are no setbacks, we will meet the 16% target by 2023,” says Hekkenberg. Several wind farms will also be connected in 2021.

Until 2030, the Netherlands will have to make a big splash on this. The European Commission has indicated that the rate should be 26% (the Netherlands itself has raised the bar slightly, at 27 percent). On the basis of the PBL’s KEV2019, this is feasible: the share of renewable energy will reach 30 to 32% by 2030, including the measures of the more recent Climate Agreement. The contribution of 27% will be more than achieved.

“If you cut out biomass, the Netherlands would fall from 14 to 6 percent renewable energy. It goes without saying that the co2 reduction target will become unachievable by 2030.” – Martin Junginger

Biomass badly needed

The key question now is: are we going to meet the above targets with or without biomass? This question is relevant in view of the discussion around the use of mainly woody biomass, read the burning of this biomass in coal-fired power plants, in bio-heat plants and in CHP plants.

“Without biomass, we will not meet the 2030 target,” says Martin Junginger, professor at the Copernicus Institute (Utrecht University). If you cut out biomass, the Netherlands would fall from 14 to 6 percent renewable energy. It goes without saying that the CO2 reduction target by 2030 will become unachievable.”

This conclusion is shared by other parties, such as the NVDE (Dutch Association for Sustainable Energy, the Platform Bio-economy) and the PBL. Biomass in the Netherlands accounts for about 60 percent of renewable energy (electricity, heat and transport fuels). Now biomass has a multitude of forms and processes with which energy can be reprocessed. The graph on page 10 (CBS, 2020) shows the different forms and their energy share. It shows, among other things, that woody biomass has a relatively small share as a co-heating. Once accounting for more than a third in the renewable mix, it has slumped and then returned to fruition in 2018 (thanks to government funding until 2027).


Given the ferocity with which the discussion on woody biomass is and continues to be conducted, this is relatively small. All the more so because the majority of this biomass comes from the Netherlands. In the period 2014 to 2018, the Netherlands was able to fully foresee itself, according to cbs, also because the co-or-a-half fell sharply (see the graph below). The Netherlands is now an importer of wood pellets (source: CE, 2020), but at the same time the Netherlands also exports woody biomass.

By the way, the PBE comes up with (slightly) different figures. In 2017, 82 percent of woody biomass (residual flows from forest management, industry and used wood) came from the Netherlands. Imports came mainly from Germany and Belgium, only a small proportion (0.5 percent) from overseas.

John Bouterse, board member on behalf of the PBE: “The discussion on biomass for energy deserves some nuance. Due to the focus on woody biomass, it seems as if the other forms (green gas, etc.) do not exist. That is why we have set up the website Biomassafeiten with other parties (Circular Biobased Delta, NVDE, Eneco et cetera) to bring this nuance to the debate.”

Biomass in balance

The question is whether the website did not appear too late and that the match – at least in the Netherlands – has already been played. According to Bouterse, that is by no means the case. “Yes, we still suffer from the negative news coverage and imagery in the (social) media. The discussion is still too much about emotion and attacking-the-man. With the elections coming up, things will not calm down in the near future. Fortunately, Minister Wiebes is sticking to previously deployed policies (including subsidising woody biomass as a side fuel until 2027, ed.).”

“CCS is – like bio-energy – a tricky subject, but it will be necessary to compensate for co2 emissions from such power plants and natural emission sources (peatlands, etc.). – Wim Turkenburg on the use of gas plants

Junginger also sees the near future optimistically. With the signing of the SER consultancy Biomass in balance (2020), several parties, including civil society, have endorsed the application of (woody) biomass for energy. “The essence of the SER advice is that the future of biomass lies in high-quality applications, such as materials and chemistry. This also allows you to (partly) capture CO2. Biomass for energy applications should be phased out where possible. Alternatives such as geothermal energy, aquathermia and electrification (heat pumps, etc.), must be alternatives. The question is whether these alternatives have sufficient potential to be scaled up, see also the discussion on the economic feasibility of heat pumps in older buildings.

Industrial heat

The authors of the SER opinion conclude, among other things, that biomass can for the time being be used for energetic applications for which no sustainable alternative is available. ‘Biofuel, for example, is needed for the time being in heavy transport and air and shipping. Commercial electric aircraft and synthetic kerosene made from renewable energy and CO2 are not yet there.’

“There are also currently very limited alternatives to industrial heat (temperatures 200 degrees Celsius and above),” junginger states. “At the moment, the Dutch industry draws 95 percent of its heat from a fossil source. With electrification, you can’t reach high temperatures. With biomass, you can do this. You can also use biomass as a backup for electricity generated by sun and wind when the sun is not shining, the wind is not blowing and the outside temperature requires extra ‘input’. The great advantage of biomass is that it is adjustable. You can turn a biomass plant on and off as needed. This is not possible with many other renewable energy sources.”


However, the major challenge does not lie directly in making electricity supply more sustainable. According to pbl estimates, wind and solar will produce three quarters of our electricity by 2030.

However, heat production is the largest CO2 emitter in the world and also in our country. Overall, heat accounts for half (source: IEA) of all energy consumption (and 40 percent of CO2 emissions), significantly more than electricity (20 percent) and transport (30 percent).

About 50 percent of the total heat is used for industrial processes (globally), to which Junginger referred. Another 47 percent is consumed in buildings for space heating and water heating and, to a lesser extent, for cooking. In the Netherlands, these relationships are different (built environment (47 percent), industry (43 percent) and agriculture (10 percent).

As Junginger pointed out, the heat supply still relies heavily on fossil fuels, especially natural gas. Although the proportion of fossils is decreasing, according to the Heat Monitor 2019 (TNO), the road is still long and bumpy.

“The discussion about biomass for energy deserves some nuance. Because of the focus on woody biomass, it seems as if the other forms (green gas, etc.) do not exist.” – John Bouterse

Heat grid Ede

As mentioned, low temperature heat (for buildings) can be generated by yellow-durable electrical sources, for example for heat pumps, possibly assisted by biomass (for buildings that are not suitable for heat pumps in combination with insulation). “At the moment biomass, also the woody one, is the only adjustable renewable heat source for high temperature heat,”, says Olof van der Gaag, Chairman of the NVDE. “That is not to say that this situation can change over the years. There are renewable alternatives, such as geothermal energy, or combination solutions in which multiple forms are combined, such as in HeatNet Ede, where solar water heaters, biomass and geothermal energy are used. Geothermal energy is still in its infancy in our country. Projects are getting off the ground now, mainly because the government subsidizes them through SDE++.”

oratie van Kramer afbeelding

Oration of Kramer: Kramer’s oration has an outlook on 2050 in which it becomes clear that electrification (sun and wind) can cover a large part of the global energy supply. However, other energy sources are also needed.


Van der Gaag has a negative answer when asked whether hydrogen (as a heat source or transport fuel) can provide solace in the short term. “Green hydrogen, produced from sun and/or wind, is an adjustable option. However, i don’t see a large-scale application happening any time soon. There are still issues that deserve attention, such as ways to make this economically competitive and to ensure that large amounts of clean electricity are available to make this.”

With these options, which are not an alternative in the short term, gas-fired power plants are coming back into the picture. In Germany, natural gas has even achieved transitional fuel status, with gas plants taking over the capacity of coal and lignite plants, at least for this decade. In our country, too, natural gas was in the news again. ‘Why does the Netherlands have to get rid of the gas when other countries are switching to it’, was a common statement on social media. “The question is whether the Netherlands should bet on natural gas”, says Junginger. “With the phasing out of Dutch gas, we become more dependent on foreign gas, especially from Russia. This poses geopolitical risks and ghg emissions from russian gas transport are higher (partly due to leaking pipelines) than from Dutch gas or woody waste streams.”


Woody biomass does not necessarily have to come from forestry. Perhaps other residual flows can also be used for additional combustion. For example, RWE has investigated whether sustainable electricity and heat can be produced with bagasse; a fibrous residual product left over after sustainable cane sugar cultivation. (Photo: Amer centrale power plant in Geertruidenberg)

Role of capture and storage CO2

Wim Turkenburg, former director of the Copernicus Institute and one of the authorities – nationally and internationally – in the field of energy and climate, sees a role for natural gas and biomass plants as a complement to other renewable sources (in particular wind and solar). “Then the CO2 must be captured and captured on earth, for example stored underground (CCS). Now CCS – like bio-energy – is a tricky subject in the environmental movement, but it will be necessary to compensate for CO2 emissions from such plants and also from natural sources of emissions (peatlands, etc.). Ultimately, we will have to navigate to negative emissions ourselves: get more CO2 out of the air every year than we emit.”

“Currently, biomass, also the woody one, is the only adjustable renewable heat source for high temperature heat.” – Olof van der Gaag

Finally, nuclear energy. This issue has now returned to the political agenda. The media, including Lubach, have also highlighted nuclear energy as a serious option for our country in a future energy mix. Turkenburg and employees carried out a simulation study of western Europe’s electricity supply for a number of years in 2050 in which nuclear energy could initially account for a third of electricity production by 2050. “In the meantime, solar and wind energy have fallen sharply in costs and this goes even further. After a new calculation, nuclear energy is too expensive. In addition to solar cells and wind turbines, other techniques are economically more attractive. These include, for example, energy storage, biomass plants with CCS and also natural gas plants with CCS. Nuclear technology has only become more expensive in recent decades, which is quite the opposite of other forms of energy. Nuclear power plants will have to fall sharply in price if they are to become economically attractive. But if we are going to ban the use of biomass, natural gas and CCS in the energy supply, nuclear power plants will come back into the picture.”


Biomass, for the time being an option for energetic applications for which no sustainable alternative is available, such as biofuels for heavy transport and air and shipping. Also, there are currently very limited alternatives to industrial heat (temperatures 200 degrees Celsius and above).


In conclusion, all forms of energy generation are subject to objections. If it’s not the high cost, it’s impact on climate, people, animals and the environment. In our small country, wind and solar installations seize precious space and seize the living environment of humans and animals. Nuclear energy is expensive and involves risks – depending on the technology – (see Fukushima, Harrisburg). Oil and gas, well, that’s what we wanted to get rid of, right?

Apart from the advantages and disadvantages, as the flag now hangs, no energy source can account for the entire electricity and heat demand. Hard choices will also have to be made. “At the moment, the discussion is mainly about what is not possible or desirable”, says Van der Gaag. “That is fine but then there must be alternatives, as has been said especially for high temperature heat energy. If not, we’ll keep spinning around.”

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