Using biomass for energy is an important part of the renewable energy mix. However, bioenergy production should follow EU resource efficiency principles, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA). This means extracting more energy from the same material input, and avoiding negative environmental effects potentially caused by bioenergy production.
‘Bioenergy’ refers to energy uses of any kind of biomass, whether for heating, power generation or transport. The report, ‘EU bioenergy from a resource efficiency perspective’, primarily looks at the potential for energy from agricultural land, although it includes forest and waste biomass in the overall analysis.
In 2010 bioenergy was the source of approximately 7.5 % of energy used in the EU. This is foreseen to rise to around 10 % by 2020, or approximately half of the projected renewable energy output, according to EU Member States’ National Renewable Energy Plans.
Bioenergy should be produced in line with EU objectives to use resources more efficiently, the report says. This means reducing the land and other resources needed to produce each unit of bioenergy and avoiding environmental harm from bioenergy production. According to the EEA analysis, the most efficient energy use of biomass is for heating and electricity as well as advanced biofuels, also called ‘second generation’ biofuels. First generation transport biofuels, for example, biodiesel based on oilseed rape or ethanol from wheat, are shown to be a far less efficient use of resources.
Building on previous analysis, the report shows that the current energy crop mix is not favourable to the environment. The report recommends a broader mix of crops to reduce environmental impacts. Specifically, this should include perennial crops, which are not harvested annually – for example energy grasses or short rotation willow plantations. This would enhance, rather than harm, ‘ecosystem services’ provided by farmland – such as flood prevention and water filtration.
Bioenergy is often considered ‘carbon neutral’, as the carbon dioxide released in combustion is assumed to be compensated by the CO2 absorbed during plant growth. However, as shown in this report, indirect land use change can negate any greenhouse gas savings from biofuel production based on energy crops. This is due to the displacement of crop production onto previously unused land, which can lead to the conversion of forests and savannah to agriculture. Such land use change harms biodiversity and increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: “Bioenergy is an important component of our renewable energy mix, helping to ensure a stable energy supply. But this study highlights the fact that forest biomass and productive land are limited resources, and part ofEurope’s ‘natural capital’. So it is essential that we consider how we can use existing resources efficiently before we impose additional demands on land for energy production.”