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Can new solutions win over bioenergy sceptics?

Bioenergy. Few topics are more divisive in the sustainability community.

Proponents point to the fact that biomass is the main source of renewable energy in the EU and an essential part of Europe’s pathway towards carbon neutrality. Critics argue that emission benefits are overstated, and the impact on forests and the environment unforgivable.

In an increasingly polarised debate it can be hard to see the wood for the trees.

Martijn Vis has dedicated much of his career to understanding sustainability while working for BTG Biomass Technology Group in the Netherlands. We spoke to him about bioenergy, sustainability and their latest project SmartCHP.

Why is bioenergy such a divisive topic?

“It all started in about 2004 with the import of palm oil for energy and whether this would cause the destruction of rainforest. This really started the whole sustainability discussion; before it was just ‘biomass is OK’.

Then of course the import of wood pellets from the US was criticised a lot, and at a certain point the NGOs picked it up as a topic.

So in 2005 we started to create sustainability criteria like Better Biomass, RSB, and then the EU Renewable Energy Directive. From that point on we could check the facts about sustainability.

Now biomass-for-energy criteria is much better developed than, for instance, for agriculture or bio-based products. Also compared to fossil fuels – you could have social criteria for fossil sources but this is not a topic at all.

But public opinion of bioenergy changed and the negative image remains.”

So you are convinced there is a place for bioenergy in a sustainable society?

“There will always be niches for bioenergy. Look at industry. For high temperature process heat you can’t rely on electricity. When the Dutch government announced they will stop with Groningen natural gas, we already saw a lot of interest in bioenergy from these industrial users.

For electricity production there are other options, like solar and wind, which are quite clean, so sure use it as much as possible. But still you can use bioenergy to balance the grid, otherwise you will need a lot of batteries, or keep using gas.

Of course, you also have issues around cascading use – you should not use biomass for energy if you can use it for materials and chemicals in an economically viable way.

But while more bio-based products will be made, with longer life-cycles, I don’t believe in zero waste – there will always be waste which can be used for energy.

It also depends a lot on the type of feedstock. Say you have branches with bark collected from the park or roadside trees – this is not of the quality that the big industry wants, so why not use it for energy?

Especially in a highly efficient system like SmartCHP.”

How can you be sure SmartCHP is a sustainable solution?

“We are in the early stages of SmartCHP which is itself a pre-commercial research project. But we have already conducted a first sustainability risk assessment, and later we will also conduct a  Life cycle assessment (LCA) of the cases.

Choice of feedstock is very important. Biomass is a very broad spectrum of different feedstocks, and each feedstock has its own merits – some can be very sustainable, and others can be not so sustainable.

For now we imagine putting this installation in a certain region and calculating how sustainable that would be. We worked in a few different countries with different feedstocks – corn stover, forestry residues, olive kernels, miscanthus.

The results are very positive. We have between 89% and 97% emission reduction compared to the fossil comparator, which is really high.

Of course, there are other factors we have to look at: with forestry residues you can have a carbon debt discussion – the biomass has to come from sustainably managed forests; with corn stover the energy use should be at a level that possible feed applications are not excessively disturbed.

We have to keep these risks in the back of our mind as we develop the project, but they are not unmanageable risks.

As well as real sustainability risks we always have to think about perceived risks which can damage the public reputation of bioenergy.”

How do you think the perception of bioenergy can be improved?

“Within our regional cluster in the Netherlands we have a kind of taskforce. We fact-check all the claims made about bioenergy – using reports from neutral sources as much as possible.

We have an FAQ page on the website, where we talk about carbon debt, CO2 reduction, NOx emissions, etc.

Speaking to policy makers and explaining the nuances is also important.

We also write articles for the newspapers giving good examples of bioenergy, staying positive – that’s one of the main points of our regional group to always try and give positive stories and not just react on negative messages.”

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Read the SmartCHP sustainability assessment report in full and find out more about the project at www.smartchp.eu.

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