The role of bioenergy in the EU renewable energy system
The rapid increase of environmental pollution, global warming, the depletion of the available fossil fuels, and the increasing energy demand have urged the modern world to move on to sustainable and renewable energy sources. The role of renewable energy, especially solar and wind, is increasing more rapidly. However, bioenergy contributes to providing the bulk of heat and transportation fuels. In addition, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine shows why the EU needs to be independent in the energy sector. The European Commission has already proposed an outline of a plan to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030. Therefore, the role of bioenergy in the EU energy system is significant in the future.
What is bioenergy?
Bioenergy refers to the energy derived from converting natural, biological biomass sources available renewable. Different conversion processes can convert biomass to electricity, heat, transportation fuels, and other valuable products. Our environment remains an abundant source of organic materials such as plants, trees, algae, or organic wastes.
What are the types and sources of bioenergy in the EU countries?
In Europe, the main biomass sources are mainly woods, different agricultural crops, animal and plant wastes, algae, residential and industrial wastes. The types of bioenergy is determined according to the biomass type and its conversion process. For example, residential and industrial waste is considered heat and power production. Alternatively, wet waste like animal manure is used to produce biogas.
Wood is one of the most important renewable energy sources in most EU countries. For example, Latvia, Finland, and Sweden use wood and wood products 29 %, 24%, and 20% of their gross inland energy consumption . Large amounts use solid biomass by households and other final consumers (industries, services, agriculture/forestry) .
More than half of Europe’s renewable energy comes from mainly solid, woody biomass bioenergy. According to Bioenergy Europe, the total forests stock in 2020 in the EU countries amounted to around 28 billion m3 of wood. Moreover, forest coverage gained in those countries on average 262.000 hectares every year between 1990 and 2020. Moreover, the forest density has climbed from 133 m³/ ha in 1990 to 173 m³/ha in 2020  .
Focusing on bioenergy, most biomass is consumed in the heating and cooling sector, at roughly 75% of the final bioenergy consumption. The remaining biomass is equally used for electricity generation and for transport fuels.
What is the percentage of bioenergy in the EU energy system?
Bioenergy contributed 59.2% of the EU renewable energy uses in 2017. It is significantly high compared to other renewable energy sources.
The figure shows that 74.2% of the bioenergy used in the EU is utilized for heat generation whilst electricity production had 13.4 %. Furthermore, the rest 12.% is used for biofuel production.
If we consider the total energy uses, precisely 16% of the final energy in the heating sector and 14% of the final energy for the industry are provided by sustainable bioenergy.
France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden are the major users of bioenergy in the EU in terms of overall inland energy consumption, considering both domestic production and imports of bioenergy carriers. On the contrary, the Scandinavian and the Baltic countries and Austria have the highest bioenergy consumption per capita.
How can we improve the share of bioenergy in the EU renewable energy system?
1. Scale up existing biogas infrastructure
Europe has many biogas plants that are not running up to the level. Therefore, there is a limited possibility of extending biogas and biomethane production in the short term, leading to new projects. This sector can help in effective terms to increase the gas production in Europe and similarly reduce the Russian gas dependency.
2. Run bioenergy plants at full capacity
A large number of EU bioenergy power plants (heat, power, and fuel) operated at around 50% of the plant's total capacity. According to the International Energy Agency, these European bioenergy plants can generate up to 50 TWh more electricity in 2022. This number shows how it can impact the EU electricity market. With the existing plants and resources, bioenergy can increase the share of renewable energy in the EU energy system.
3. Towards polygeneration
In order to improve the efficiency of local district heating plants or centralized combined heat and power (CHP) plants, a polygeneration energy system could be appropriate as it diversifies both input and output. This technology is expected to have the potential to bring about a dramatic increase in system efficiency, contributing, in the future, to the safeguarding of energy resources.
Moreover, most EU countries have several district heating plants where it is a problem to use the heating energy during the summertime. If we can manage the flexible production of energy, we can save a lot of waste bioenergy.
4. Advance biomass conversion
To reduce car emissions by 55% within 2030, the EU needs to implement all possible new technologies that can provide transportation and aviation fuel. Though, we need to run the existing plant on a full scale. However, in building a new biomass conversion plant, we may need to focus on the most advanced thermochemical conversion, such as hydrothermal liquefaction or gasification.
5. New application for bioenergy uses
Still, most of the process industries in Europe use coke from fossil fuel for their process. The possible replacement of this coke is biochar. There is much research going on in this field. In addition, the share of biofuel transportation fuel, aviation fuel, and bunker fuel in the EU energy system need to increase to reach the goal of 100% renewable energy system in the EU.
6. The symbiosis of industrial processes
Sawmill, pulp mill, and process industries can be combined with bioenergy production. The symbiosis of industrial processes can increase the efficiency in total as residues are used instead of ending up as waste. This symbiosis depends on the local feedstock availability and their needs and circumstances. It helps in reaching a circular bio-economy at the European Union level. This industrial symbiosis strictly depends on the local needs and circumstances. The implications should not influence the rigid implementation of the cascading principle in EU legislation. In practice, wood process industries and bioenergy, biomaterial, and bioenergy production processes work very well together.
7. Use of by-products and waste biomass
The wastes produced by agriculture are a growing challenge, as their dumping, use, and control practices are not effective or generally applied. For example, potatoes or tomatoes, and other vegetable plants are not used in most cases. The residues are left in the field to decompose or even burn it in some cases. Moreover, it results in significant environmental impacts.
To overcome the above-mentioned problem, we need to utilize existing technologies (anaerobic digestion, combustion) or new technologies(hydrothermal liquefaction, gasification, pyrolysis) to utilize the waste biomass from agriculture and forest.
8. EU bioenergy legislation
There are many directories, including The EU renewable energy directory of the EU parliament and council, to promote the use of bioenergy in the EU energy system. The European Green Deal is a roadmap of key policy and legislation of bioenergy implementation in EU countries. It also shows the measures to increase the share of bioenergy (renewable energy) to fight against climate change and energy dependency from other non-European countries. We need to strictly maintain the legislation provided by the different directories in the EU to reach the goal.
When safeguarding environmental aspects like ensuring biodiversity, bioenergy can contribute to, among other things, greenhouse gas savings, sustainability, and the reduction of fossil fuel uses. Though presently the main contribution is the heat and power sector, bioenergy can eventually contribute to the EU energy system's low carbon and energy storage options. The EU governing bodies need to give attention to the new and advanced application of bioenergy to accelerate the share of bioenergy in the EU renewable energy system.
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1. Joint European action for more affordable, secure energy [Internet]. European Commission - European Commission. Available from: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_22_1511
2. ETIP_B_Factsheet_Bioenergy in Europe_rev_feb2020.pdf [Internet]. Available from: https://www.etipbioenergy.eu/images/ETIP_B_Factsheet_Bioenergy%20in%20Europe_rev_feb2020.pdf
3. Bioenergy and Europe’s forests are growing – Biomass Supply Report 2021 [Internet]. Bioenergy International. 2021. Available from: https://bioenergyinternational.com/opinion-commentary/bioenergy-and-europes-forests-are-growing-biomass-supply-report-2021
About the author
Dr. Souman Rudra is an Associate Professor at the University of Agder, Norway. He is the acting leader of the Bioenergy and thermal energy group.