Simon Göss provides an overview of the main issues surrounding the intense policy debate over the future of biomass in the EU. The current proposals of the EU parliament still allow certain woody biomass to be used for all kinds of energy purposes but limits the share that primary woody biomass can contribute towards renewable energy targets. Included in the proposals is a new definition of primary woody biomass, and a phase-out of financial support for its use in all energy applications. But industry associations see the proposals as too restrictive, potentially jeopardising the renewable energy targets of Member States and the EU, while environmental NGOs have long been trying to convince policy makers to reduce the utilisation of forest wood for energy purposes. It’s worth noting that the scenarios to 2050 published by the EU Commission make clear that biomass use is likely to increase its share in energy consumption, and probably also in actual numbers. [Promoted by Enviva]
New proposal on Woody Biomass and the renewable targets of the EU
The role of biomass in the renewable energy mix is often overlooked. Wood, biogas, biowaste and residues makes up 50-60% of the EU’s renewable mix. It is not surprising that proposed changes to the Renewable Energy Directive that concern biomass bring up points of contention between industry groups and environmental NGOs. While the proposal of the EU parliament from September 2022 indeed would have effects on the future growth of all energy uses of woody biomass, most of the demand for bioenergy in a climate-neutral EU in 2050 would have to be met by new sources such as agricultural wastes, or non-woody energy crops.
Biomass is an important part of the renewable mix
Most of the time, wind and solar or energy carriers and technologies such as hydrogen or batteries make it to the headlines. The larger part of the EU’s renewable energy mix is, however, made up of biomass. Between 50-60% of the renewable energy consumption in the EU comes from biomass in different forms (liquid, gaseous, solid) and origins (wood, grasses, agricultural residues by-products, etc).
The main sector in which biomass is being used in the EU is the heating sector with both centralised district heating plants and networks common in Scandinavian countries and decentralised wood stoves in houses in many other EU countries, such as France or Germany. In total, the utilisation of biomass in the heating sector makes up about 75% of its total energy usage as shown in Figure 1.
A total of about 140 Mt of biomass for energy purposes was used in the EU in 2016. Only 4% of this biomass was imported from outside of the EU, while 96% came from the Member States. Most of the biomass for energy purposes is used within the country of origin, accounting for around 93% (source: JRC).
According to a detailed report by the JRC from 2021 on the use of woody biomass for energy production in the EU, the primary source of biomass for energy purposes is wood-based: 60% of EU domestic biomass supplied for energy purposes. Still, woody biomass comes again from different sources and ways and about 37%-51% of woody biomass used for bioenergy is from “primary wood biomass”, while the remainder stems from secondary biomass. Secondary biomass consists of domestic solid by-products, black liquor from pulp factories or post-consumer wood (source: JRC).
Obviously, the topic of biomass and its use for energy production is complex and not always straight-forward. This is also reflected in the discussions surrounding potential changes in the Renewable Energy Directive put forward by the EU Parliament in September 2022 (source: EU Parliament).
Proposals by the EU Parliament: new definition, cap share and phase-out of financial support
As part of its input to the trilogue on the Renewable Energy Directive III, the EU Parliament brought forward several proposals that would affect the business-as-usual biomass utilisation for energy purposes. Even though biomass can still be counted as renewable, three main changes to the status quo have been proposed:
- a new definition of primary woody biomass and its eligibility for energy purposes,
- a cap of the share of primary woody biomass to contribute to renewable targets of the EU,
- the removal of all subsidies for primary woody biomass in all energy uses
…New definition of primary woody biomass
Regarding the new definition of woody biomass and its eligibility to be used for bioenergy purposes, the new primary woody biomass definition includes all roundwood felled or otherwise harvested and removed, i.e. the quantities removed from forests, including wood recovered due to natural mortality and from felling and logging. Biomass obtained from sustainable wildfire prevention, road safety measures or from forest affected by natural disasters, pests or diseases would be excluded from the new definition. This definition would affect the primary source of wood from removals as shown within the red circle in Figure 2.
…Renewable energy targets
This new definition of primary woody biomass also plays a role for the second proposed change. The usage of primary woody biomass to count towards the renewable energy targets of the EU shall not be more than the share of this kind of primary woody biomass in the reference period 2017 to 2022. This effectively means that an increase of primary woody biomass above the average of 2017-2022 will not be counted as renewable and thus not help Member States or the EU to reach their renewable targets. However, non-primary woody biomass or also other biomass and wastes can still be counted towards the targets.
Lastly, the EU Parliament voted for the removal and discontinuation of financial support for all primary woody biomass, for all energy applications. This would include some of the most advanced woody biomass applications including for decarbonising EU industry and the production of sustainable aviation and maritime fuels. It has been further revealed that the restrictions the EU Parliament propose on subsidies could also impact the zero rating of primary woody biomass in the EU-ETS.
The proposals are now still being negotiated at the EU level between the EU Council, Parliament and the Commission (source: EU Parliament). The Commission and EU Council did not include restrictions on the use of primary woody biomass in their respective positions, but in the context of the negotiations have suggested alternative definitions that would limit the ability of certain woody biomass feedstocks to contribute to the renewables targets and receive subsidy. Namely, Quality Roundwood, which would be defined as “roundwood felled or otherwise harvested and removed, whose characteristics, such as species, dimensions, rectitude, and node density, make it suitable for industrial use, as defined and duly justified by Member States according to the relevant forest conditions. This does not include pre-commercial thinning operations or trees extracted from forests affected by fires, pests, diseases or damage due to abiotic factors”.
Effects of the proposals
Taken together, the proposals of the EU parliament still allow certain woody biomass to be used for all kinds of energy purposes but limits the share that primary woody biomass can contribute towards renewable energy targets to the current level and prevents the ability for member states to subsidise it, which in turn impacts the EU-ETS zero rating. Effects will be different for different countries and use cases and a detailed impact assessment has not been conducted yet.
Clearly, for the forestry and biomass industry this limits growth potential in one area, as the strong arguments by industry groups have shown. Especially for countries that have large forests and obtain a sizeable amount of their energy from biomass this could mean a stronger focus on waste utilisation and other renewables.
In Sweden for example, roughly a third of the biomass used in district heating and electricity generation comes from forest residues and discarded wood according to an assessment of the impacts of the new rules by the industry association Svebio. Those volumes could partially fall under the new primary woody biomass definition and would thus limit and impede its growth potential for usage not only for district heating, but also for the development of biofuels from woody biomass. More research and evaluation of the proposals for certain countries, industries and specific use cases of woody biomass are however necessary to come to more informed conclusions.
Equally, alternative definitions – such as Quality Roundwood – that have been proposed to replace ‘primary woody biomass’ would have significant impacts on woody biomass supply. These definitions would raise a question mark over the future eligibility of low value stemwood, which the JRC estimates currently makes up 20% of EU woody biomass supply. In the limited Impact Assessment undertaken by the EU Commission they concluded that limits on this type of woody biomass would be difficult to implement and could reduce the use of bioenergy to a point where it may not be possible to meet the EU’s Climate targets, especially out to 2050.
What is the role of Biomass in future energy scenarios for the EU?
In a nutshell, the scenarios published by the EU Commission as material for the Fit for 55 package make clear that biomass use is likely to increase its share in energy consumption, and probably also in actual numbers: from about 150 Mt to a bit more than 200 Mt on average (Figure 3). The actual increase depends a lot on the development of energy savings, efficiency measures, electrification and the expansion of other renewables in the respective scenarios. However, across all the modelled scenarios the EU Commission foresee that bioenergy use must increase by an average of 69% – especially to support the decarbonisation of heavy industry, long distance transport and the production of negative emissions.
The EU scenarios see the main growth potential in new biomass sources such as lignocellulosic grasses, residues and wastes. The amount of bioenergy from forest stemwood or forest residues (which would be defined as primary woody biomass and also partially as Quality Roundwood) do not increase substantially – but are still required. Figure 4 shows the entire feedstock necessary for fulfilling EU bioenergy demand in 2050.
While the industry associations see the voting of the EU Parliament and counter proposals as too restrictive and having the potential of jeopardising the renewable energy targets of Member States and the EU, environmental NGOs have long been trying to convince policy makers to reduce the utilisation of forest wood for energy purposes. Clearly, concerns about environmental degradation and loss of forests (CO2-sinks and biodiversity) need to be taken seriously.
Nevertheless, usage of biomass for energy purposes will still be needed, maybe more so in times of energy and affordability crises. To really enable (woody) biomass to play its role in a sustainable and greenhouse gas neutral Europe more needs to be done on the country and local level to address sustainable forestry issues through certification rules and oversight. And as always: if a new policy proposal is being met with criticism from proponents and opponents, a workable compromise will be needed.
Simon Göss is Co-Founder and Managing Director at carboneer