Ten per cent of the world’s primary energy supply in 2009 came from biomass. Demand for bioenergy is expected to grow three-fold by 2050. But does it matter where this bioenergy comes from?
Bioenergy generated from biomass comes from a range of sources; e.g. corn, sugar, sugar beet, soy, energy grass, organic waste and wood etc. to name but a few.
But how can we be sure that these renewable sources are any better than traditional energy producing methods?
Recently, the UK Government launched a scientific calculator that investigates the impact on carbon emissions of biomass sourced from North America to produce electricity.
UK Industry indicates that a large proportion of the feedstock used for electricity generation is likely to be imported from North American forests.
The Global Calculator has been published in its draft form, but needs greater expert input to test the model’s assumptions and results.
The calculator forms part of a report issued by the the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in the UK which indicates that the method of sourcing biomass for fuel is key in making bioenergy sustainable.
Dr Bernie Bulkin, formerly Chair, Office of Renewable Energy, DECC, said: “The DECC report on utilisation of biomass for generating UK electricity is the result of a long research project by Anna Stephenson. It’s a careful piece of work, that presents many different scenarios for how and where the biomass is grown, how it is transported to the UK, whether it is grown specially for this purpose or is waste, and so on. Some of these turn out to be very advantageous from the carbon savings perspective, and some are terrible.
“We have known this instinctively for a long time but this work confirms it. What it really shows is that if we do biomass electricity in the right way, it will make a great contribution to renewable energy in the UK, displacing coal and saving a lot of carbon emissions. Some people will undoubtedly pick up on the ‘bad’ scenarios and highlight them. This is a mistake. What we need to do now is put in place the systems and processes to make sure we achieve this in the best possible way.”
Bernie is right in saying the focus of this report should be on the positive way we can use bioenergy to help combat climate change. The report helps clarify to chemical engineers which bioenergy sources are most sustainable. This can only help us in our fight to combat climate change.
IChemE has long sought to ensure that sustainable processes for producing energy are put in place and our technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters, highlights the need to improve the efficiency of using biomass technologies.
Professor Roland Clift, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Technology, University of Surrey, and IChemE member said: “This is a useful report looking at a diversity of supply options for wood fuel, reinforcing the conclusions of earlier studies. In particular, it highlights the fact that the environmental benefits (or otherwise) of using wood as a fuel depend on where and how it is produced. This in turn highlights the importance of assessing and guaranteeing the source and supply chain of the wood.”
Burning wood can release as many harmful carbon emissions as coal. As chemical engineers we needed to ensure that we are accurately able to calculate the emissions producing energy causes at all points of the production cycle.
Energy producers in the UK who fail to comply with the UK governments sustainability criteria will lose funding from next year. UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said: “In the short term, biomass can help us decarbonise our electricity supplies, and we are committed to supporting cost-effective, sustainably produced biomass.”
“This calculator shows that, done well, biomass can offer real carbon savings – which is why we are tightening our rules for sustainable biomass.”
Tools like this calculator are helpful in driving forward progress. Let’s hope that we can all work together to ensure that all energy produced is done so as sustainably as possible.
If you think you could help in the process of refining the Global Calculator, please submit your evidence. The closing date for responses is the 29th August 2014.