Key Facts on Bioenergy in Europe
Asking people across Europe “what is bioenergy?” often raises more questions than it solves – and this can be understandable. In fact, “bioenergy” is a term that can have different meanings while describing different feedstocks and uses. “Woody biomass,” “agricultural biomass,” “energy crops,” “biofuels,” “bioheat,” “biopower,” “solid biomass,” “bioliquids,” or “biogas,” are all different subcategories of the bioenergy sector. As technology progresses, new feedstocks and appliances regularly appear, enriching the field of bioenergy with neologisms. This is why it is essential to set proper and simple definitions before trying to understand the place and the role of bioenergy in Europe.
Bioenergy comes in all shapes and sizes
Within our close environment, a great source of organic materials such as plants, algae, or organic wastes, can be valuable fuels as soon as a technology makes it possible to efficiently extract all of its energy potential.
Bioenergy is adaptable
Some biomass materials may be used directly as fuel, as is the case with traditional firewood still widely used worldwide.
Bioenergy is a flexible energy resource
Bioenergy is the only renewable energy source able to provide the three main sources of energy needed both by individuals and businesses: bio heat / cooling, bio-power and bio-fuel.
Bioenergy comes in all shapes and sizes
Within our close environment, a great source of organic materials such as plants, algae, or organic wastes, can be valuable fuels as soon as a technology makes it possible to efficiently extract all of its energy potential. Bioenergy players traditionally refer to biomassto describe those usable feedstocks. Biomass currently used in Europe includes wood from forests, agricultural crops and residues, by-products from the wood and agricultural industry, herbaceous and woody energy crops, municipal organic wastes and manure, and could potentially integrate algae and marine biomass in the future.
Bioenergy is adaptable
Some biomass materials may be used directly as fuel, as is the case with traditional firewood still widely used worldwide. However, since the oil crisis of the 1970s, modern installations have developed to use more and more processed biomasses: agricultural crops are turned into biofuels, manure into biogas, or wood into pellets.
Bioenergy is a flexible energy resource
Bioenergy is the only renewable energy source able to provide the three main sources of energy needed both by individuals and businesses: bio heat / cooling, bio-power and bio-fuel.
EU Biomass Consumption
Bioenergy covers – more than any other renewable energy – a wide range of feedstocks and conversion technologies (cf. Scrolling bioenergy section). Biomass of all types mobilised in Europe to produce energy accounted for 144.087 kilotonnes of oil equivalent in 2017. As a way of comparison, this means that biomass used for energy is on the way to overpass the European production of coal in the same period.
In general, more than two thirds of biomass consumed in Europe consists of solid biomass being mostly forestry residues and to a limited extent agricultural by-products (e.g. Wood industry by-products / Wood from Silviculture / Waste wood / Tall Fescue / Switchgrass / Short rotation Coppices / Miscanthus / Hedges / Green waste …).
Biogas and biofuels feedstocks represent 11,7% and 11,4% of gross inland energy consumption of biomass (e.g. Beets / Cereals / Crop by-products / Grass / Intermediate crops / Linseed / Livestock manure / Maize / Marine biomass / Rapeseed oil / Sludge / Waste vegetable oil and animal fats) .
Finally, renewable municipal waste used for energy purposes represent the fourth main type of biomass for energy reaching 7,3% in 2017 (e.g. Agri-food wastes / Household bio-wastes).
Solid bioenergy feedstocks
Among all biomass materials, wood has always been the most popular source of energy used in Europe. However over the past decades, wood consumption has changed, moving away from the traditional image of the log placed in the family fireplace. The residential sector is still the main share of wood energy consumption (27%) but is closely followed by the industrial use of wood chips – in installations above 1 megawatt (22%) – and small scale use of wood chips (14%). Pellet consumption in modern appliances is also growing fast, representing 6% of total EU wood energy consumption.
This evolution results from the development of the bioenergy sector. Historically, the European bioenergy sector has been developed to work in synergy with other wood based industries to give value to non-mobilised and/or low value biomass such as thinnings, low-quality wood, tops and limbs, sawdust or woodchips from industry. In fact, contrary to what can be said/written down, bioenergy providers in Europe do not use any type of wood indiscriminately; they mainly mobilise woody biomass sourced from byproducts of forest management operations and the wood industry such as sawmills. Bioenergy generators do not use high quality timber, for both economic and environmental reasons.
The European biofuel industry is mainly spread between two distinct sectors, bioethanol and biodiesel which do not rely on the same feedstocks to produce fuel.
According to ePURE, the European renewable ethanol association, 5,55 million tonnes of co-products were produced in 2018, of which 4,20 million tonnes was animal feed. The feedstock used to produce European renewable ethanol by ePURE members, for example, were cereals (75%); sugars (21%); Ligno-cellulosic (4%).
In the EU, bioethanol is mainly produced from grains and sugar beet derivatives. Wheat is mainly used in northwestern Europe, while corn is predominantly favored in Central Europe and Spain. Sugar beet users mostly include France, Germany and Belgium. Regarding the volume consumed for ethanol production, the required feedstock for the 2018 production (5,81 million liters of bioethanol) is estimated at 11,11 million metric tons of cereals and 2,07 million metric tons of sugar equivalent (mainly from sugar beets). In other words, this means that only about 3,8% of total EU cereal production and about 1,7% of total sugar beet production goes to energy purposes in 2018.
Bioethanol is not only a sustainable source of energy because of its low impact on land use but its production also provides EU farmers with €6.6 billion income per year. Contrary to common perception, it does not compete with other grain uses like food production and does not lead to negative impacts on food prices. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Food Policy Research Institute even confirm that biofuels and food production can be mutually supportive.
Biodiesel’s most common feedstock remains rapeseed oil, accounting for 38% of total production in 2018, but its position is decreasing considerably, mostly due to the higher use of palm oil and recycled vegetable oil/used cooking oil (UCO). Palm oil comes in second place in terms of feedstock (27%) followed by used cooking oil and animal fats (17% and 8% of the total biodiesel feedstock, respectively). UCO is the third most-important feedstock, lead by the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany. More specific sources of biofuel such as wood, fatty acids or cottonseed oil are used depending on local/national production.
In fact, UCO has become the second-most important feedstock, lead by the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
The European biogas sector is very diverse. Depending on national priorities, whether biogas production is primarily seen as a means of waste management, as a means of generating renewable energy, or a combination of the two, countries have structured their financial incentives to favor certain feedstocks over others. In this regard, two countries represent the two ends of the scale: Germany and Sweden. Germany generates 93% of its biogas from the fermentation of agricultural crops and crop residues while in Sweden sewage sludge gas accounts for nearly 92% of the biogas production. All other countries use a variety of feedstock combinations. Taking the Europe-wide picture, field crops, manure, agri-food industry waste represent around three-fourths of the biomass used for biogas production, a share that tripled since 2010. Sewage sludge and landfills represent the last fourth.
Renewable municipal and industrial wastes feedstocks
Waste-to-Energy is the fourth most important category of bioenergy feedstock used in Europe. About 410 installations in the Europe rely on the yearly waste production of both industries and municipalities. In 2018, Europeans treated a total amount of 216 million tonnes of municipal waste out of which 28% went to waste-to-Energy plants (60 million tonnes) still remaining behind recycling (47%) and landfill (23%) practices.
EU Biomass In Numbers
Bioenergy’s contribution to the EU’s 2020 renewable objectives is crucial. By 2020, bioenergy is expected to contribute to half of the EU’s 20% renewable energy target. In 2017, bioenergy consumption in EU-28 reached 119.301 kilotonnes of oil equivalent which is more than double the consumption in 2000. This increase is equivalent to the annual coal consumption in the industry, residential and service sectors combined. According to Member States’ projections , by 2020, almost 140.000 kilotonnes of oil equivalent are expected to be consumed yearly, which would imply a growth of 25% when compared to 2015.
Renewables are often associated with power generation and transport. Studies shown than when asking European citizens about renewable heating and cooling technologies, almost 35% weren’t able to name one single technology. The heating and cooling sector remains underestimated, showing great room for improvement. Heating and cooling represents around 50% of total EU-27 energy consumption, of which 79% is powered by fossil fuels. Renewables are becoming a key priority for EU-27 policy, in buildings specifically, a sector which is essential to address in order to reach EU-27 decarbonisation objective. Bioenergy is currently the leading renewable in heating and cooling (87%) representing 18% of European gross final consumption of energy in this sector (Bioheat Report, 2019).
In the bioheat sector, residential consumption remains a strong driver with half of total consumption (49,6%). The residential sector consists of individual heating appliances such as stoves and boilers using wood logs, woodchips or pellets. Industry (26%) and “district heating” (17%) represent together about 40% of biomass consumption in the heating sector. These sectors, together with medium-scale installations in services such as schools, hospitals and hotels still have a great potential for development. As far as industry is concerned, many companies have already switched from fossil fuels to biomass, but more can be done in the coming years. Heat, carried through district heating networks to individuals and business, is also an important component of EU bioheat consumption and is essential, especially in Nordic and Baltic countries. This segment has a high potential for being further developed.
Discover the story of Kiowatt (DAY 1) to learn more about bioheat in Europe.
Traditionally, the electricity market has been more closely addressed by European regulations, allowing renewable energies to make up 33% of the market share. Wind and hydro are leading the transition in the sector. With regards to power generation, bioenergy represents 5,3% of the overall EU-27 generation. Most renewable power is generated by wind, hydropower and photovoltaic sources. Bioenergy represents 16,1% of the EU-27 renewable electricity production. As intermittency remains an issue in the near future, biomass will play a growing role as a back-up, dispatchable energy source.
Contrary to what can be sometime said or written about bioenergy, statistics show that in the overall EU-27 energy mix in power, a great majority of biomass electricity generated (71%) comes from combined heat and power plants also called cogeneration or CHP rather than from plants producing only power. The situation is the opposite in the traditional power generation industry from conventional thermal source. CHP plants represent only 28% whereas power only plants amount to 72% (Bioelectricity Report, 2020).
This shows that bioenergy is actually an effective means to promote and further develop the use of modern and efficient CHP in Europe.
Biofuel for transport
The transport sector has always been the most challenging for renewables in terms of market penetration. Renewables represent 8,0% of EU-27 total energy consumption (22.473 kilotonnes of oil equivalent) in transport, 68% of which is provided by biofuels in 2018. It is rather challenging to foresee how biofuels (in particular first generation biofuels) will continue to develop, as recent EU legislation established a quota for these biofuels. EU statistics on renewables in transport can also be misleading regarding the actual level of production as multiple counting rules are applied according to the EU renewable energy directive. Looking more in details, biofuel market is driven by biodiesel and bioethanol. Biodiesel was the first biofuel developed and used in the EU in the transport sector in the 1990s. EU-27 remains the world’s largest biodiesel producer and consumed 13.303 Ktoe in 2018. In comparison, bioethanol consumption in 2018 reached 2.620 Ktoe for an actual production of 2.365 Ktoe (Biofuels Report, 2020).
In 2018, 82% of bioethanol was for fuel consumption. Other markets, such as beverages and industrial applications each represented 9% and 9% respectively of the 5.81 billion litres production (Source: ePure)
When used for biofuels, renewable ethanol is a relatively low-cost alternative fuel and is proven to reduce CO2 emissions significantly. In 2018, fuel ethanol use in Europe saved an average 71% GHG emissions compared to fossil fuels (Source: ePure) – and that GHG-saving performance is getting better every year. The more ethanol is blended with petrol, the greater the benefits. Its use reduces the European transport sector’s total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6 million tonnes each year, the equivalent of at least 4 million cars taken off the road.
Besides first generation biofuels, one of the hottest topics in Europe over the past years has been the penetration of new transport market segments heavily relying on oil (like the aviation industry), and the development of second and even third generation biofuels.
Today, the European bioenergy sector utilises a wide variety of processes to upgrade or convert the energetic potential of biomass feedstocks. In fact, most modern bioenergy installations require more advanced fuel to work at their maximum capacity (cf. biomass final products) . On the other hand, biomass processing industries are developing more and more different fuels and/or bio-based materials out of the same initial feedstock. Thanks to these technologies, today bioenergy is one of the most reliable sources of clean energy adopted by companies, municipalities and households all across Europe. This section offers a brief overview of the specific processes and technologies.
Solid Biomass Conversion Processes
Most solid biomass is used in thermal applications. If you ever try to make fire using green wood, you already know that combustion performs better when moisture is limited. This is why most technologies developed over the past decades by the solid biomass processing sector have focused on the way to reduce the presence of water in the final fuel, either using traditional drying methods or more advanced ways. In addition to being essential for improving combustion, having a very dry fuel is key as it allows in the end to increase the energy potential for a same volume of fuel, improving its storage and its transportation.
Logging, grinding, screening and/or drying
Logging, grinding, screening and/or drying operations are mechanical processes carried out in order to enhance solid biomass fuels. These operations help transform the biomass into a more homogeneous fuel that is easy to handle with an higher energy recovery (eg. wood chips, wood logs, agrofuel). In general, moisture content in wood chips used for energy generation in municipal or industrial plants ranges from 20-30%.
Densification is another popular way to transform woody material into an advanced fuel with high calorific value. This process involves compressing biomass and lowering moisture levels in a range of 8-10%, allowing for a more homogenous fuel–either in the form of pellets or briquettes. The heat during compression fuses the lignin in the biomass, naturally binding the biomass together in its new, enhanced shape. Thanks to densification, the homogenous biomass fuel is easier to transport and can be used in automated biomass installations, such as pellet stoves and boilers.
Thermo-chemical conversions are now used to produce fuel with even higher calorific value such as torrefaction or steam explosion technologies. During the torrefaction process, wood is subjected to 230 to 300ºC at atmospheric pressure in the absence of oxygen. Comparable to some extent to coffee torrefaction, this method allows the creation of a fuel with very interesting characteristics. Compared with conventional wood, torrefied wood has a very low (>5%) moisture content, is easily grindable and is relatively hydrophobic.
Thanks to advanced technologies, woody biomass can also produce liquid or gaseous fuels. Pyrolysis for instance is a thermal-chemical conversion that requires a high temperature (>400 °C) and little oxygen to convert the biomass into other forms including gas, liquid fuels (pyrolysis oil), and biochar. Gasification is another thermo-chemical conversion that takes place at high temperatures (>800 °C), with limited oxygen and/or steam, converting solid biomass into synthesis gas, or syngas, which contains carbon and hydrogen and can be used to produce liquid fuels such as biodiesel.
Wet Biomass Conversion Processes
Wet biomass are also materials present in high volume across Europe (manure, agricultural waste or by products). As they contain too high of moisture content to be turn efficiently into energy via a direct combustion process, other conversion pathways and energy outputs have been developed especially by the biogas (anaerobic digestion) and biofuel sector (fermentation). Anaerobic digestion and fermentation are the two main conversion pathways used to turn wet biomass feedstocks into advanced fuels.
Anaerobic digestion is microbiological process of decomposition of organic matter, in the absence of oxygen, common to many natural environments and largely applied today to produce biogas in airproof reactor tanks, commonly named digesters. A wide range of micro-organisms are involved in the anaerobic process which has two main end products: biogas and digestate. Biogas is a combustible gas consisting of methane, carbon dioxide and small amounts of other gases and trace elements. Digestate is the decomposed substrate, rich in macro- and micro nutrients and therefore suitable to be used as plant fertiliser. Biogas can be used for direct combustion to produce heat but also power if converted in a cogeneration plant or directly in adapted gas motors. Biogas can also be “upgraded” through purification processes to obtain a biomethane than can be injected in the existing natural gas networks, used as a chemical products or as vehicle fuel.
Fermentation is a biochemical conversion whereby microorganisms including yeast and bacteria convert bioenergy into products such as ethanol and liquid transport fuels (biodiesel). This process is done through several stages. First, sugary and starchy feedstocks such as corn must be crushed and combined with water, allowing the enzymes to convert these starches into sugar. This then ferments along with the addition of yeast, and is distilled into bioethanol. Bioethanol can also be produced from cellulosic biomass such as grass, wood, and stalks, via fermentation, however this process is more complex and involves a mechanical pre-treatment and the addition of enzymes or breakdown of the lignocellulose into sugar through hydrolysis, before following the same procedure.
Biomass & EU Forests
Bioenergy is commonly used to refer to renewable energy made available from materials derived from biological sources. As such, bioenergy can potentially be extracted from a wide range of feedstocks present in our close environment thanks to adapted conversion technologies. Among all biomass materials, wood has always been the most popular source of energy used in Europe.
What share of bioenergy does wood represent at EU-28 level?
In 2017, 70% of the bioenergy consumed in Europe was sourced from forests – providing 29 days of clean energy to the whole EU. As bioenergy is the EU-28’s most important source of renewable energy, woody biomass is one of the main drivers of Europe’s energy transition. Forests are also a key source of biodiversity and carbon storage. Therefore, understanding the dynamic between the production of bioenergy and forest management is essential in order to have a clear vision of bioenergy’s environmental contribution.
What type of woody materials are used to produce bioenergy?
Bioenergy providers in Europe do not use any type of wood indiscriminately; both for economic and environmental reasons, they mainly mobilise woody biomass sourced from byproducts of forest management operations and the wood industry such as sawmills. Historically, the European bioenergy sector has been developed to work in synergy with other wood-based industries to give value to non-mobilised and/or low value biomass such as sawdust, mill residues, thinnings, low-quality wood, tops and limbs. Bioenergy generators do not use high quality timber, as using lumber would make the price of energy wholly uncompetitive for end consumers.
As an example, in Belgium for the winter season 2016-2017, the price of 1 m3 of lumber (100-120€/m3) was almost 10 times higher than the price of 1 m3 of wood for energy (6-13 €/m3). Bioenergy players are not able to match the prices offered by the timber industry. Based on the following price index, using Belgian lumber to produce 1 MWh of electricity would range between 833-1000 €. This would actually be 10 times more than the average price of electricity in Belgium (108-235 €/MWh).
What is the role of bioenergy in the EU-28 wood-based sector?
With the enforcement of the EU-28 objective on renewable energy, the bioenergy sector has grown steadily, becoming an established player of the wood industry alongside traditional industries such as sawmills, paper producers or panelers. However, when looking at the EU-28 wood removals according to end use, the great majority goes to the wood industry (77,30%). Only a fraction of woody materials are used for energy (22,70%) mostly tops, limbs and low quality wood. This indicates that bioenergy doesn’t necessarily compete with other uses of wood.
Where does the EU-28 wood fuel come from?
EU-28 woody fuel consumption reached almost 107 million m3 in 2017. According to UNECE/FAO, only 3,6% of this total consumption came from woody material imports. This means that more than 95% of EU-28 bioenergy consumption comes largely from local sourcing, providing added value to regional economies and helping the EU-28 to reduce its energy dependency.
What is the current state of play of EU-28 forests?
Contrary to common belief, EU-28 forests have been steadily growing over the past decades. In 1990, European forests represented a total amount of 19,7 billion m3. In 2015, EU-28 forest reached 26 billion m3, meaning that forest stock increased by 32% over the last quarter of a century.
This growth is due to two main reasons: forest areas increasing (1) and a growth of standing volumes (2) :
(1) According to Eurostat, EU-28 forest coverage gained 322.800 hectares every year, meaning that European forests are increasing by the size of a football field every minute.
(2) On average, about 62% of the annual forest increment in Europe is actually felled, meaning that 38% of this annual increment remains in forests, as shown in the below graphic. The situation can vary from one country to another. Forest spreading is more common in the Mediterranean region, in countries such as Italy, France, Spain, and Slovenia, where at least 40% of the annual increment remains untouched.
What are the main challenges for the future of EU-28 forests?
The fact that forest stock keeps increasing as well as its carbon sequestration capacity can be considered as positive news for Europe. On the flip side, this creates upcoming challenges for an urbanised Europe to maintain and mobilise the full potential of its forests.
According to the latest State of Europe’s Forests Report, 3% of the total forest area in Europe is damaged, most commonly caused by biotic agents such as insects and diseases. On the other hand, the amount of deadwood, particularly standing deadwood, has increased slightly in most of Europe’s regions over the past 20 years. The average volume of deadwood, both standing and lying, ranges between 8 m3/ha in Northern Europe and 20 m3/ha in central Western Europe.
A lack of control or management can generate additional concerns such as forest fires, especially in the Mediterranean region. In 2015 alone, there were more than 58.000 forest fires registered in Europe with a total surface burnt of more than 256.000 ha, releasing 1.9 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere according to JRC initial estimation.
Bioenergy can play a major role in combatting forest degradation, thanks to extra sources of income to forest owners, municipalities and governments to manage their forests sustainably in the long-run.
Discover, through the example of Juan José Mayans, municipal Engineer in Serre (Spain) and Jean-Claude Tucoulat, forest owner in Pays d’Othe (France), how this can take place.
Has the EU-28 carbon stock capacity decreased?
Carbon stock in EU-28 forests has constantly increased over the past 15 years. European forests store large amounts of carbon both above ground (in the leaves, stems, and other parts of plants) and below ground (trees produce large quantities of roots , rotting leaves, debris, and soil organisms that contain carbon).
Compared to 2000, 2015 saw an increase in both the carbon stored in the aerial parts of forests and below-ground by 19% and 21%%, respectively.
Between 2005 and 2015, the average annual sequestration of carbon in forest biomass, soil and forest products reached 719 million tonnes of CO2. To put this into context, this is equal to the average annual emissions of 97 million Europeans.
What is the potential for sustainable woody bioenergy production?
Discussing the potential for sustainable woody bioenergy development is subject to debate as it depends on many variables and assumptions.
Simple estimates of forest biomass potential that could be mobilised for energy use can be derived from the current size of forests, forest removals and forest bioenergy sector of a given country. Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA Bioenergy) has estimated the potential for forest biomass mobilisation for energy use.
According to the IEA’s estimation, 180.000 ktoe of forest biomass can be mobilised for energy use if current mobilisation logistics are optimised, the proportion of sustainably managed forests are increased and the quality management of mobilised biomass is improved.
The primary energy production of forest biomass in the EU-28 was 95.207 ktoe in 2017, this indicates there is still room for an increase in forest biomass mobilisation.
If forest biomass mobilisation could reach 180.000 ktoe, it could replace 67% of the gross inland consumption of solid fossil fuel used in 2015!
For more information, download the following factsheet.
RT @IEABioenergy: Active forest management in the boreal forest performs better in carbon storage than unmanaged forests. Harvested carbon…
📊 #DYK that #pellet consumption for heat in the #EU reached a record high of 19,2M tonnes in 2021? 💡 #biomass provides off-grid #energysecurity and is reliable + storable! *Thanks go to @SGS_SA + @valmetglobal + @hawkinswrightUK https://t.co/JpDFvM0c0a
📊#DYK that #pellet consumption for heat in the #EU reached a record high of 19,2M tonnes in 2021? 💡#biomass provides off-grid #energysecurity and is reliable + storable! *Thanks go to @SGS_SA + @valmetglobal + @hawkinswrightUK https://t.co/hYy0HdU2Ct
RT @greensofa_betd: "Heat has always been the elephant in the room", @irenedipadua @bioenergyEU 🇧🇪 said: "People still think of #energy as…
RT @markuspieperMEP: #RED3 just reached agreement with Swedish Presidency: 42.5% binding renewable target by 2030. Faster approval processe…
📢Our very own @irenedipadua was at the #betd23 conference today! 🗨️"The fact that subsidies are still going toward fossil fuels is striking - we want to see them banned." #bioenergy #heating #energy #Energiewende #energytransition #GreenFuture https://t.co/cwi8QpfX2e
🚀Today we launch our #CircularChoices campaign! 📢We draw attention to the policy choices that #EU policymakers now face + urge them to support our contribution towards enabling the transition to a circular♻️#bioeconomy Learn more👉 https://t.co/CbRcWqf98z
RT @greensofa_betd: #Welcome to the first day of #betd23! #JointheDialogue ➡️via on-site or on Twitter, LinkdIn or YouTube. #renewables #e…