Rethinking biomass’ carbon loophole: will the EU chart a more science-based course?

When the EU embarked upon its energy transition odyssey, regulators deemed the burning of biomass as climate neutral—which when done on a relatively small-scale and under controlled conditions, it can be. But taking advantage of the EU’s biomass baked-in carbon loophole, power generators soon began converting older, coal-fired plants to burning it instead. There’s only one catch: the climate science doesn’t add up. Biomass’ special carbon accounting loophole is creating a superficial impression of climate progress as forests disappear and emissions rise. Despite sunk capital and billions in government subsidies, the EU has vowed reform, but will regulators really change course? L. Michael Buchsbaum has the details.

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Accounting errors

It’s supposed to work like this: Burning biomass in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Expanding forests more or less instantly absorb an equivalent amount of the released carbon through photosynthesis, in turn giving individual trees the energy they need to grow. This beneficial cycle is the foundation of the EU’s continued designation of biomass as both climate neutral and renewable.

For coal-dependent power stations dealing with rising carbon taxes and ever tightening regulations, firing their boilers with biomass instead of coal has become a lifeline enabling a longer run on the grid. As a result, ever more millions of tons of biomass pellets are being transported around the world, particularly from forests in the southeastern United States, all based on the assumption that burning them is a major tool to tackle global warming and avoid dangerous climate change.

But fearing what they claim are “the perverse climate effects of bioenergy based on forest biomass,” the esteemed European Academics and Science Advisory Council (EASAC) continues to question the impacts of converting from coal to forest biomass to generate electricity. Physics shows that when a power station switches from burning coal to wood pellets, a significant amount of extra carbon dioxide is initially released. This occurs because for each kilowatt hour of electricity generated, biomass’ lower energy content and complex supply chain emits more CO2 than the coal it’s replacing. Though theoretically vegetation will regrow, allowing the new CO2 to be reabsorbed from the atmosphere, the resulting carbon lag time between emission and absorption has become a critical problem, particularly as the climate emergency worsens and carbon budgets shrink.

“Uncertainties abound in estimating how long it takes before that initial pulse of extra emissions from the burning of wood is reabsorbed.” EASAC worries these so-called “carbon payback periods” are likely to be several decades, requiring more time than is available to meet agreed upon Paris Agreement targets to limit warming to 1.5-2oC. EASAC argues that the ‘bottom line’ for greenlighting more coal-to-biomass conversion projects must be based on whether they will actually meet Paris targets within the allotted timeframes. Instead, data increasingly shows that the EU’s favorable biomass stance is simultaneously masking and propelling the climate crisis.

Nations struggle to deal with coal to biomass shift

By 2014 biomass already accounted for 40% of the EU’s renewable energy. Now it represents almost 60%, far more than solar and wind power combined according to the EU’s statistical office, Eurostat. Despite growing wind and solar capacities, many EU countries claim they will be unable to achieve their 2020 renewable energy targets without converting more coal-fired power plants to biomass. Even in nations where a coal phase-out is well underway, there remains a “genuine threat” of coal-to-gas and coal-to-biomass conversions happening instead of the needed coal-to-clean transition.

In a new report, Beyond Coal notes that fossil gas has actually replaced around half of Europe’s coal plant capacity, with solar and wind accounting for most of the other. “The success of the coal phase-out is therefore also dependent on the next stages of the transition since bad investment decisions can lead to stranded assets and infrastructure lock-in,” they remind.

Biomass’ role in displacing coal is also growing. As of the end of 2019, proposed EU coal-to-biomass projects could increase biomass consumption by some 15 GW or more, according to a study by climate thinktank Ember. At that rate, biomass burnt in current and former coal power plants could triple versus current levels, requiring an estimated 36 million tonnes (MT) of wood pellets, essentially doubling current global demand.

A prime example of where this is already occurring is the Netherlands which has been turning to biomass to clean up its economy. Nevertheless, according to an as-yet unpublished report by DNV GL, a consultancy firm commissioned by the Dutch government, power stations which burn wood and other plant-based products can or do emit more carbon dioxide as well as up to 20% more nitrogen-dioxide than existing coal-fired power stations. In fact they find that generating the same amount of power in a biomass-fired station creates more pollutants than coal because the process is less efficient and needs more fuel. Generating heat with biomass instead of fossil gas also doesn’t help as twice as much nitrogen is released in the process. In early July, the government’s senior advisory body, SER, recommended that coal to biomass subsidies be phased out as soon as possible.

Now the Dutch government is in a real bind. After agreeing to close its remaining coal-fired power stations by 2030 to meet their Paris climate change targets, they are in the midst of awarding over €11.4 bn in subsidies to build new biomass plants and help existing coal plants convert. Unsurprisingly the largest recipient is RWE, set to receive over €2.6 bn more in corporate-welfare to convert plants in Geertruidenberg and Eemshaven from burning imported coal to biomass.

In response to the report, Economic Affairs and Climate Minister Eric Wiebes pledged that future reliance upon biomass would be an “inherently temporary” measure, only used if there are no alternatives. While not promising to end subsidies for future conversions, he lamented that if biomass burning were to end, the Netherlands would require “much more wind and solar energy” to meet their targets.

Despite the Dutch government’s vague backtrack, Germany continues to embrace biomass. Buried in the details of its recently announced coal exit law is language allowing some combined heat and power (CHP) plants to also receive subsidies to convert to biomass. According to Clean Energy Wire (CLEW), using a so-called “coal replacement bonus”, existing lignite- or hard coal-burning cogeneration plants will be eligible to receive capacity-based payments if they convert to generating from waste, waste heat, or biomass. For newer hard-coal plants this might be an attractive proposal. Already one power station in Rostock is applying for conversion support funds.

Recognizing the growing climate policy reality gap, in May the EU announced plans for a sweeping review of biomass policies by the end of 2020. As Euroactiv reports, the European Commission intends to push a “transformative approach”, taking a special look into “the use of forest biomass for energy production.” Commission climate chief Frans Timmermans has made forest conservation and restoration key aspects of the European Green Deal, which aims at reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. “The use of whole trees, whether produced in the EU or imported, for energy production should be minimized,” the Commission says, suggesting perhaps it no longer views all biomass as inherently carbon neutral. With new rules set to come into effect in 2021, the debate—along with the planet—is heating up.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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