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Click Green: UK reverses surprise slump in biomass energy across Europe



The UK is one of a small number of European countries to report an increase in the consumption of solid biomass fuel, according to a snapshot report on the state of the European biomass industry.


The UK rise is in sharp contrast to a shrinking market across the rest of Europe, which the report blames on an exceptionally mild last winter.

Today's EU Barometer study, published by the EurObserv’ER consortium, revealed primary energy production from solid biomass has decreased across the Continent by an average of nearly 3%.

However, largely driven by the additional take-up of co-firing power plants, solid biomass electricity continued to grow with the UK market rising to 6.1 TWh, increasing output by nearly 17%% .

The report also highlights the most interesting innovations in the biomass electricity industry, which apply to raw materials and are primarily geared to raising the calorific value of biomass to bring it closer in line to that of coal, resorting to new techniques such as pellets, briquettes and torrefaction. 

Describing this year's challenges, the report says many European Union countries had a particularly mild winter which lowered heating requirements and thus the demand for solid biomass fuel. It cites the British Met Office Hadley Centre, which pointed out that temperatures in Europe were 1.5°C above the mean recorded between 1961 and 1990.

The EurObserv’ER consortium’s preliminary estimates reveal that primary energy production from solid biomass (wood, waste wood, other plant and animal-based biomass) decreased by 2.4 Mtoe in 2011 slipping to 78.8 Mtoe.

Gross consumption of solid biomass primary energy, including imports and exports, is put at 80.8 Mtoe in 2011 – a drop of 3.9%. The main reason for this difference is increasing influx of wood pellets imported from Canada and the United States.

The report states: “If we look back through the statistics over the past 20 years, we have to conclude that this drop in solid biomass energy production is very out of character, for since 1990, it has been
constantly growing in the European Union, apart from a dip in 1999. In fact it more than doubled over the 1990-2010 period (39.5 Mtoe produced in 1990).”

The EurObserv’ER survey assumes that processing sector heat production data tends to match sales to district heating networks and concludes that sales were down by 7.5% in 2011 for 7 Mtoe of production. 

Most of this heat, 60.8% in 2011, was produced in cogeneration (CHP) plants (plants that produce both heat and electricity). The report's estimate for final energy consumption that accounts for most heat consumption (in the residential and industrial segments) is 58 Mtoe - a 3.1% year-on-year slide. Total heat consumption amounted to 64.9 Mtoe in 2011, down from 2.4 Mtoe in 2010. 

Solid biomass electricity output was much more resilient, as electric heating is fairly under-developed across Europe in contrast to other more widespread applications.

The survey puts energy capacity at 72.8 TWh in 2011 - a 2.6% rise on 2010, and again as in the case of heat, CHP plants provided most – 57.9% – of this output.

Sweden experienced a particularly dramatic drop in solid biomass energy production. Sweden’s first estimates suggest that, solid biomass production was slashed by more than 1.7 Mtoe to 8.2 Mtoe. 

The Swedish forestry industry is the country’s primary biomass energy user, generating both electricity and heat for self-consumption as well as heating for the residential segment. 

In 2011, wood waste and black liquor (a papermaking industry by-product) amounted to 83.4% of solid biomass energy production (90.1% in 2010), with logwood making up the remainder. 

According to the Swedish Energy Agency, biomass use in district heating has increased fivefold since 1990, while wood pellet consumption has soared making the country the leading consumer of this fuel. According to PellCert (European Pellet Quality Certification project), Sweden used about 2.3 million tonnes in 2010 including 700 000 tonnes of imports. 

In Finland, the drop in consumption was not so acute. Preliminary data from Statistics Finland suggests that the use of woody biomass contracted by about 3% in 2011. The reason for this contraction is twofold. Firstly, less black liquor was used in the papermaking industry because of the slowdown in business and secondly, district heating requirements were lower. 

The country though remains first for the solid biomass primary energy production per inhabitant, with 1.4 toe/inhab. in 2011

In Germany, the drop in solid biomass consumption can be put down to German householders’ reduced heating requirements, while the contraction in consumption was much less pronounced in the industrial segment. 

Of all the various biomass fuels, wood pellets have emerged relatively unscathed. The German Timber Energy and Pellet Association (DEPV) says that production increased by 6% (110 000 tonnes) in 2011 and rose to 1.86 million tonnes. 

This increase is a little less than that recorded in the two previous years when the increase was about 150 000 tonnes. The country’s consumption level is put at 1.4 million tonnes, or 200 000 tonnes (17%) more than in 2010.

The Association forecasts that 2 million tonnes will be produced in 2012, and consumption will be about 1.6 million tonnes. Annual wood pellet burner sales in the domestic segment range from 15 000–20 000 units, giving Germany an installed base of about 155 000 at the end of 2011. 

In August 2012, the government decided to increase its subsidies to revive sales of renewable energy-fuelled heating systems (Marktanreizprogramm). The subsidy for pellet-fuelled burners was increased by € 400 raising the minimum subsidy level to € 2 400, while wood burners coupled to a back boiler with a hot-water storage tank are eligible for a minimum subsidy of € 2 900.

The UK is one of the few European countries to have increased solid biomass consumption (it imports more than a quarter of its consumption). The sole beneficiary of this increase, according to the DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change), was electricity production which rose to 6.1 TWh, increasing output by 16.9% between 2010 and 2011. 

In October 2012, the UK government announced it was setting up new specifications and a new bonus system as part of the ROCs (Renewable Obligation Certificates) scheme, to improve its grip on the growth of electricity production from solid biomass plants. 

It also decided to set up a self-declaration process for coal-fired power stations that undergo full-unit conversion to biomass, or plants that practice co-firing on a large scale. This disclosure scheme will reduce the statutory obligations of these projects and guarantee investors the right to take up the ROCs system.

The new bonus system for the 2013-2017 period has been confirmed as follows. New biomass plants will continue to benefit from 1.5 ROC per MWh in 2013. The allocation will then drop to 1.4 ROC per MWh from March 2016 onwards. 

Plants using energy crops will be able to claim 2 ROCs per MWh from April 2013 onwards with annual stepped reductions in April, i.e. 1.9 ROC from 2015 onwards and 1.8 ROC from 2016 onwards.

Coal-fired plants undergoing full-unit conversion to biomass will be eligible for 1 ROC per MWh, and the number of ROCs allocated to plants practising co-firing, will depend on the fuel’s biomass content. 

Standard co-firing (<50%), will be eligible for 0.3 ROC per MWh in 2013 and 2014, then 0.5 in 2015. Medium co-firing (50-85%) will be eligible for 0.6 certificates from 2013 onwards. High co-firing (85 to <100%) will be eligible for 0.7 ROC from April 2013 and then 0.9 from April 2014 onwards. Co-firing plants will also be able to take up 0.5 ROC per MWh if they operate co-generation.

Despite this clear banding system, a number of investment projects remain stuck in the pipeline because of the uncertainties surrounding the funding terms of the new electricity purchasing system (FiT-CfD, Feed-in-Tariffs with Contract for Difference) due to replace the ROCs system after 2017.

The reduction in solid biomass energy production (from 10.6 Mtoe in 2010 to 9.2 Mtoe in 2011) in France is due to the drop in house-hold consumption just as it was in Germany. 

The Observation and Statistics Office (SOeS) reports that household consumption of wood fell to 6.1 Mtoe in 2011 as against 7.6 Mtoe in 2010. Even though consumption of energy-wood is highly dependent on the residential segment, its use in industrial, collective and service sectors is burgeoning. 

The Grenelle Environment Round Table spawned the Heat Fund that Ademe has managed since 2009.

The national BCIAT (Biomass Heat Tertiary Industry Agriculture) calls for projects apply to biomass. They fund industrial, farm-based and service industry installations of more than 1 000 toe per annum. 

The last three calls for projects (2009-2011) identified a total of 82 projects whose initial combined target was 400 000 toe of energy production. The Heat Fund directly funds installations that produce more than 100 toe per annum that fall outside the scope of BCIAT (essentially institutional). 

Over the 2009-2011 period, 236 installations were funded for total production of 205 000 toe. The French energy regulator (CRE), which manages tenders for electricity production, regularly launches tenders for cogeneration projects. SER, the renewable energies board, forecasts that there will be 231.5 MW of biomass plant capacity operating in cogeneration plants at the end of 2012.

The sectors involved are papermaking, sawmills, oilseed crop processing, institutions and waste management.

In Poland the rapid development of biomass co-firing for generating electricity has been largely responsible for the sharp increase in solid biomass consumption. The electricity sector used circa one million tons of additional biomass in 2011, of which 90% was used in 51 co-firing power plants. 

The volume of biomass converted in co-firing plants has increased threefold between 2006 and 2011 (from 1.7 million to 5.2 million tons), and much of this biomass has been imported. The Polish Economy Ministry is disturbed by this sharp growth and considers that at 480 PLN (€ 120) per MWh (green certificate at 70€ per MWh plus electricity price), the cost to public finances of subsidizing co-firing to produce electricity is too high and contributes to unsustainable utilization of biomass. 

The government presented a new draft law to reduce support to the sector, which currently under procedure, in favor of decentralized micro systems like PV. A number of operators, like GDF Suez, which invested heavily in upgrading the boilers at coal-fired power station to allow for an ever higher penetration of biomass in the fuel mix, is likely file for financial compensation if the law is passed in its current state. 

Local utilities such as PGE and Enea have also invested in co-firing infrastructure in the recent years.

While Biomass has slumped, Biogas energy recovery for both electricity and heat application has increased in the European Union. 

The magnitude of the reduction in the primary energy figure can be played down as it can be explained by a change in reporting method of the main producer country, Germany.

New markets are starting to emerge in its footsteps, but the economic crisis and regulatory restrictions do not auger well for their expansion.

EurObserv’ER considers estimating the increase in primary energy production from biogas a hard task this year, because the main producer country that accounts for half of Europe’s production changed its primary energy calculation method for small cogeneration plants in 2011. As the bulk of the Germany’s primary energy is generated by these plants, the methodology change amounts to a quantum leap.

Electricity and heat production, through cogeneration or otherwise, are the main forms of biogas recovery in the European Union. Most of the increase in primary energy output is finding its way into electricity production. Between 2010 and 2011, 18.2% to 35.9 TWh, while over the same period, biogas heat sales to factories or heating networks increased by 16%. Most of the heat produced is used directly on site for drying sludge, heating buildings and maintaining the digester at optimum temperature.

The European Union is laying the groundwork for a third recovery option: biomethane (purified biogas) injection into natural gas grids. The European Green Gas Grids project study has identified at least 177 biomethane plants in Europe including 128 that feed into national natural gas distribution grids. The remaining plants use the biomethane generated on the production site, primarily as fuel.

Energy recovery by incinerating household refuse in the European Union led to renewable energy production of more than 8.2 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2011, which is a 2.6% increase on 2010. 

While the increase in waste-to-energy recovery is preferable to using landfills, the report warns that under no circumstances should this growth be made at the cost of waste prevention and recycling policies.

Recovery in the form of electricity, estimated at 18.2 TWh in 2011 compared to 17.2 TWh in 2010, is still the preferred channel and is rising constantly. Obviously heat sales from these plants present a better picture in those countries where district heating networks are more widespread (Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands). This recovery channel has tended to increase slowly over the past three years, at 2 Mtoe in 2011.