Is forest biomass a renewable energy source?

A landmark lawsuit was filed against the European Union in early March, with plaintiffs from six countries charging that the EU’s 2018 Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) will devastate forests and increase greenhouse gas emissions by promoting burning forest wood as renewable and carbon neutral.

The case argues that RED II will accelerate widespread forest devastation and significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions by not counting CO2  emissions from burning wood fuels. Wood-fired power plants emit more CO2  per unit of energy generated than coal plants, but RED II counts these emissions as zero.  The treatment of forest biomass as low or zero-carbon renewable energy in both RED I and RED II has and will continue to increase harvesting pressure on forests in Europe and North America to meet the growing demand for woody biomass fuel in the EU.

The map below shows all wood-fired biomass incineration projects in the EU in the AcuComm database, as of March 2019. There are 358 in total, of which 215 are known to be operational. The total estimated value of the 358 is US$21.7 billion.

woodfired biomass in Europe

RED II binds EU Member States to achieve an EU-wide target of 32% energy consumption from renewable sources by 2030, and is a critical element in the EU’s overall goal to reduce carbon emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

The use of biomass for energy, primarily solid biomass burned for heat and power (wood, agricultural residues, and black liquor, a by-product of the pulp and paper industry), increased significantly in the EU from 1990 to 2016, particularly in the years leading up to and following the 2009 RED. By 2016, bioenergy constituted almost 65% of renewable energy inputs in the EU, nearly twice as much as all the other renewable energy sources combined. Solid biomass inputs increased 140% over the same period and constituted 45% of renewable energy inputs in 2016.

Although the lawsuit is likely to prove a largely symbolic gesture, it does potentially challenge the future of the burgeoning biomass power industry in the EU, with the potential to threaten the future of newbuild biomass CHP plants, as well as the growing trend towards converting existing coal-fired plants to using biomass – examples in AcuComm’s WasteView Project database include Selby (Drax), Tilbury, Ironbridge, Aarhus, Fredericia, Kalundborg, Hanasaari, Eemshaven and Linköping.

Written by Ian Taylor, Senior Editor & Research Consultant.

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