Biomass has been used as fuel for tens of thousands of years. Development of biomass applications has made great strides in recent decades. There are now a variety of methods for converting biomass into heat and electricity, from pellets for household heating to agricultural waste used to produce electricity in commercial power plants.
Four per cent of EU electricity generation
Biomass and waste provided around four per cent of the EU's electricity generation in 2010. Biomass is used primarily in countries with extensive forest industries, where residues such as branches, wood chips and sawdust can be used to produce electricity and heat. Countries with large agricultural industries and industries that produce waste products that can be used as biofuels also have potential to increase their use of biomass.
Dramatic increase expected
The number of power plants in Europe that run solely on biomass is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years. In addition, it is used along with coal in many hard coal-fired power plants. After wind power, biomass is the fastest growing energy source in Europe.
Can reduce CO2 emissions – if carefully managed
Biomass can potentially contribute to reducing CO2 emissions. But expanding the use of it may have both positive and negative consequences for the climate.
If biomass is to contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions in the future, cultivation and production must be carried out in a controlled, sustainable manner.
In supplying society with energy, a balance must be struck between three key dimensions: competitiveness, security of supply, and the environment and climate. No single energy source is optimal from all dimensions. This energy triangle illustrates the pros and cons of biomass.
Climate and environment: By using biomass in power production instead of fossil fuels, CO2 emissions can be significantly reduced. Carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere when biomass is burned, but when biomass grows it binds carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Properly managed biomass is therefore carbon neutral over time.
Security of supply: Biomass can be converted into a stable and reliable supply of electricity and heat. Biomass can be securely sourced on small scales, but supply of larger volumes is currently difficult to secure. One important step is to establish a global trade and certification system. Biomass resources are geographically diversified and political risk is limited.
Competitiveness: Using biomass to produce electricity is currently more expensive than using energy sources such as coal, gas or nuclear power. The global biomass supply chain is developing and, over time, technological and logistical improvements will bring down prices. An increased CO2 price will also improve the economic competitiveness of biomass.