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Biomass beginnings

Biomass is gaining attention as a potential solution to the world’s energy needs. Giles Crosse reviews what its evolution might mean.

A recent report suggests that up to one fifth of global energy could be provided by biomass without damaging food production. By anyone’s standards, that’s a potentially game-changing statistic.

The details are revealed within ‘Energy from biomass: the size of the global resource’ report recently released by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC). The document assesses and reviews more than 90 global studies in making its conclusions.

Conclusions within “Energy from biomass: the size of the global resource”

Although optimistic in spirit, biomass potential studies are not blind to the challenges. Pre-requisites to pursuing a sustainable trajectory are discussed in the majority of studies, and include:
• Investment in deployment, agricultural development, and forestry.
• The development of infrastructure and logistics.
• Capacity building and knowledge transfer.
• Appropriate regulation and a minimum level of regulatory competence.
Risks are also highlighted, including the fact that:
• Sustainable biomass may cost more than unsustainable biomass.
• Global population and diet which are the root drivers for food and energy demand are also inherently uncertain.

Issues surrounding biomass remain centred on the role it could play in the future energy system: some say it could play a major role in fuelling the planet, others argue it risks an environmental disaster. The report finds that the main reason scientists disagree is that they make different assumptions about population, diet and land use. A particularly important bone of contention is the speed with which productivity improvements in food and energy crop production can be rolled out.

“If we make the best use of agricultural residues, energy crops and waste materials then getting one fifth of current global energy supply from biomass is a reasonable ambition,” says Dr Raphael Slade, the report’s lead author and a research fellow at Imperial College London.

The report finds that getting more than this is technically possible but requires assumptions about food production and changes in diets that look increasingly challenging, especially as people in Asia and Latin America begin to adopt a high-meat western diet as incomes rise.

“The more bio-energy you want the harder it becomes to reconcile demand for food, energy and environmental protection,” says Slade. Replacing all fossil fuels with biomass would be equivalent to all of global agriculture and commercial forestry combined, and would only be possible if we can grow more food on less land.

Technical advances might be the least contentious route to increased bio-energy production, but policy will need to encourage innovation and investment alongside this for any meaningful change to occur.

UKERC argues a renewed focus on increasing food and energy crop yields could deliver a win-win opportunity as long as it is done without damaging soil fertility or depleting water resources. The report highlights the potential for policy to promote learning by encouraging development of sustainable biomass now, rather than waiting for the definitive answer on the ultimate potential.

Insights that might reasonably influence our interpretation of biomass potentials

• The green revolution led to production outpacing demand but at a major cost to the environment, and with greatly increased energy and water inputs.
• Scope to further increase yields and close yield gaps exists but there is a general sense that many of the easy gains have already been achieved. The practicality of closing yield gaps is also hotly contested.
• Intensification of agricultural production is considered likely and necessary, but far from being a panacea it could further jeopardise the long-term sustainability of food production unless combined with measures to conserve and maintain soil fertility.

Moving ahead

Plenty of energy firms aren’t waiting for a green light from global policymakers. On 30 November, Welsh Power Group Ltd sold 50% of its 47MW biomass power plant project company Nevis Power Ltd to a subsidiary of Banco Santander SA. Welsh Power and Santander will now jointly complete the development and finance of the power plant.

Alastair Fraser, Chief Executive Officer of Welsh Power, commented that, “Having a company of the status and quality of Santander choosing to partner Welsh Power on the development of Nevis is excellent news, and is the first major advance in our business since we completed the buyout of The Welsh Power Group Ltd on 30 June 2011.”

Elsewhere, Oliver Alexander, Executive Director of Asset & Capital Structuring, Santander, said, “We are really pleased to have the opportunity of partnering in the development of Nevis with the highly-experienced management team at Welsh Power and are looking forward to working with them, bringing our financial expertise to deliver a successful outcome for the development and construction of Nevis.”

Hurdles to worldwide deployment

The fact that global equity companies with the clout of Santander are becoming involved in the biomass sector could be a useful indication of plant power’s ascending star. Though there remain many hurdles to worldwide biomass deployment. Giuliano Grassi is Secretary General at the European Biomass Industry Association (EUBIA) based in Brussels.

“Large-scale supply of homogeneous biomass to a single plant, ie 0.5-1Mta,” he says, describing key challenges facing the biomass energy sector. According to Grassi, solution to these issues will involve refining, palletisation, torrefaction and composting of all types of agro-forestry residues for world potential to be met, alongside more efficient, sustainable energy plantations.

Describing key development and innovations in the biomass energy sector, he points to the production of synthesis-gas by gasification processes that can be refined to penetrate all energy markets and bio-chemicals markets. When it comes to biomass’ ultimate global potential, he argues that future modern bio-energy, delivered through biotechnology advances and fuller understanding of photosynthetic mechanisms, could cover most of the world needs, mirroring UKERC opinions.

“Conflict with food production can be avoided by the utilisation of surplus cultivable land (about 1bnha), and the recovery of the huge areas of semi-arid lands, plus the production of aquatic crops like algae,” Grassi continues.

“Commercial, viable synthesis-gas production, lingo-cellulosic ethanol is attractive but appears rather expensive and a too slow conversion process for the conversion of the huge volume needed in the distant future,” he goes on. “There may be modification of plant metabolism to reduce the cost of processing and refining through advances in biotechnology.

“In five or 10 years’ time, due to the limitations in private investments and scarce competitiveness, only the following activities may emerge: high-level cofiring biomass-coal, bioheating, plus commercially-viable biorefineries,” he concludes.

Biomass futures

Dr Raphael Slade, in his capacity at Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy & Technology, spoke to Industrial Fuels and Power about the futures for biomass.

“The key challenge facing the global biomass energy sector is accessing, or growing, large quantities of biomass sustainably and at low cost. There is an enormous range of technologies that can convert biomass into high-value energy carriers such as electricity and transport fuels, but feedstock supply is an issue that affects them all.

“Biomass could also have an important role in the supply of heat for industrial and space heating. There is no single solution to the feedstock problem. Different parts of the world will need to adopt strategies that match their capabilities, making the best use of sources such as agricultural and industrial residues, as well as dedicated energy crops.”

Slade explains that globally, bioenergy is one of the most important renewable energy options. It already supplies around 10% of global primary energy, although most of this is traditional uses such as firewood gathering. Many global energy scenarios envisage an increased role for bioenergy, the challenge is to show that the biomass can be supplied sustainably.

“The food versus energy debate is an oversimplification,” he continues. “There are very important interactions between bioenergy and food production, but these can be positive or negative. Bioenergy done well could provide environmental and economic benefits, but done badly it could exacerbate existing problems. Nonetheless, a focus on efficient and sustainable food production and use is important for the future potential of bioenergy.
“Important areas where innovation will be needed over the next 10 years include increasing the productivity of both food and energy crops and understanding better the link between productivity increases and land availability. Water is another critical issue which could constrain future productivity of both food and energy crops and needs to be better understood at a regional level.”

Slade concludes that ensuring bioenergy, food and forests don’t compete for land won’t be straightforward. “But, if land can be used more productively and better use made of available plant material, it should be perfectly possible to produce bioenergy, feed a growing population, and conserve the environment all at the same time.”

Unlocking potential

Ultimately, it appears that technological development may well be the key to unlocking biomass’ global potential. EUBIA notes that on 28 November, a EUR14m initiative is bringing experts from across northwestern Europe together to develop the potential of algae as a source of sustainable energy began.

The four-year transnational Energetic Algae, or EnAlgae project, led by Swansea University, is a strategic initiative funded by the Interreg IVB North West Europe Programme via the European Regional Development Fund, together with a range of co-sponsors.

The EnAlgae initiative will allow expert centres across the region to form an integrated pilot network to support and accelerate the development of new algal-based technologies to the point of commercialisation. The project is unique in developing best practices that will influence European policies on algal biomass production, bioenergy and bioremediation technologies, thereby seeking to de-risk and accelerate commercialisation of the sector.

The project’s manager Dr Robin Shields, director of the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Research (CSAR) at Swansea University’s College of Science, said: “Algal bioenergy has been identified as a strategic priority by the Interreg IVB NWE Programme. The EnAlgae expert partnership has been formed to develop and implement technologies tailored to the unique socio-economic and environmental conditions of North West Europe.”

Movement of this kind may well determine precisely what role biomass will play now and into the future.

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