Biomass for electricity and heating: Opportunities and challenges

17-09-2015

Biomass is a renewable energy source which can be used to produce electricity, heat and transport fuels. It accounts for roughly two thirds of renewable energy in the European Union (EU). Although biomass can come from many different sources, wood is by far the most common. Under EU legislation, biomass is carbon neutral, based on the assumption that the carbon released when solid biomass is burned will be re-absorbed during tree growth. Current EU policies provide incentives to use biomass for power generation. At present, there are no binding sustainability criteria for biomass at EU level, although some exist at national and industry level. Opportunities and challenges related to biomass have to do with greenhouse gas emissions (biomass can contribute to reducing carbon emissions, but emissions may not be fully accounted for); resource availability (biomass can contribute to energy security, but its sources are finite); environment and human health (increased use of biomass for energy can have adverse effects on air quality, soil properties and biodiversity). To address sustainability concerns, different responses have been put forward, including the principle of the cascading use of biomass, whereby it is used more than once, with energy conversion typically as the last step. The European Parliament has called for EU sustainability criteria but has opposed legally binding rules for prioritising uses of wood. Stakeholders have expressed opinions on greenhouse-gas accounting, sustainability criteria and the cascading use of biomass.

Biomass is a renewable energy source which can be used to produce electricity, heat and transport fuels. It accounts for roughly two thirds of renewable energy in the European Union (EU). Although biomass can come from many different sources, wood is by far the most common. Under EU legislation, biomass is carbon neutral, based on the assumption that the carbon released when solid biomass is burned will be re-absorbed during tree growth. Current EU policies provide incentives to use biomass for power generation. At present, there are no binding sustainability criteria for biomass at EU level, although some exist at national and industry level. Opportunities and challenges related to biomass have to do with greenhouse gas emissions (biomass can contribute to reducing carbon emissions, but emissions may not be fully accounted for); resource availability (biomass can contribute to energy security, but its sources are finite); environment and human health (increased use of biomass for energy can have adverse effects on air quality, soil properties and biodiversity). To address sustainability concerns, different responses have been put forward, including the principle of the cascading use of biomass, whereby it is used more than once, with energy conversion typically as the last step. The European Parliament has called for EU sustainability criteria but has opposed legally binding rules for prioritising uses of wood. Stakeholders have expressed opinions on greenhouse-gas accounting, sustainability criteria and the cascading use of biomass.