Biomass : Industry demand for biomass may exceed supply

SOCOTEC biomass biowaste waste to energy

The Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) finds sustainable biomass in short supply.

A report released by the global coalition of energy leaders predicts that without major changes in land use, technology and consumer behaviour, the stock of sustainable biomass available will only come to about 40-60 EJ/year. The scenario related is notable in that expected biomass supply is much lower than figures forecast by prominent organisations in the field such as the International Energy Agency (IEA).

In order to counteract said outcome, the ETC argues, more investment in zero-carbon solutions such as electrification is needed. Limiting use of bioresources to areas where other materials are plentifully available such as transport, residential heating or shipping are other recommendations made within the report.

‘Bioresources Within a Net-Zero Emissions Economy: Making a Sustainable Approach Possible’ also agitates for the use of biomass as a primary resource rather than an energy source. Priority sectors such as aviation, where biofuels are still more affordable than synthetic fuels prove an exception, but on the whole, the ETC argues that alternatives such as clean hydrogen production and grid stability management are the way to go in order to achieve carbon neutrality without becoming wholly dependent on biobased fuels.

The proposed phasing out of biomass has much to do with its hidden environmental impact. Sourced from food crops such as sugarcane and corn, by-products of agricultural production such as rice husk or just plain food waste, it’s a resource derived from plants and vegetables and therefore rightfully considered ‘renewable’. Yet renewable in this sense does not automatically mean sustainable. In some cases, biomass production may compete for land with players involved in the food production industry as well as contribute to deforestation (when biomass is based on wood), thereby threatening biodiversity and ecosystem health. Truly ‘sustainable’ biomass as the ETC defines it would have to be sourced from crops grown on degraded land or derived completely from waste matter.

Left unchecked, the demand for sustainable biomass would cripple global ecosystems as well as contribute to deforestation and soil depletion on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

Beyond preventing the commercial exploitation of biomass supply through prioritisation according to industry sector and investing in alternative technologies (ex. seaweed for energy production), the ETC also suggests improvements in waste collection and management systems to increase the supply of sustainable biomass. The report also mentions the need for better mechanisms to oversee and trace biomass supply chains.

The ETC is an organisation representing a series of global environmental advocates, energy companies, financial institutes as well as energy intensive industries. Based in London, the think tank regularly publishes reports and position papers focusing on climate change mitigation and economic growth.