Biomass is any material of organic origin such as wood (directly from forest or by-products of the forest-based industry), agricultural crops and by-products (eg: straw) and residues (eg: manure), agro-industrial by-products or municipal biowaste that can be used to produce energy.
Biomass can be used to produce heat, electricity or transport fuels. A significant increase in bioenergy demand is expected in the coming years. Most of the biomass consumed today for energy purposes is used to produce heat for both domestic and industrial applications.
Of all possible renewable heating options, biomass has a great potential to deliver significant and cost-effective solutions to a concerning heat demand. Biomass heating can be achieved with a wide variety of fuels.
Fuel: Wood pellets, wood chips, briquettes, wood logs.
Stove: Used for residential heating
Boiler: From small to multi-MW scale used for houses, the tertiary sector, industries and cities. Heat can be used in buildings (through individual applications or district heating) and for industrial processes. Heat and electricity can be simultaneously co-generated through CHP (combined heat and power).
A low-carbon option through the substitution of fossil fuels: The use of biomass in heating can replace oil, gas or coal.
Therefore, if sustainable biomass is used, the short-term replacement of fossil fuels allows a reduction of GHG emissions.
Operational fuel cost savings: The costs of biomass fuels can be much lower than the fossil fuel, so biomass heating systems can provide attractive operational cost savings in both households and industrial applications.
Reduced fuel price volatility: Security of energy supply is a recurrent concern with fossil fuels due to geopolitical instabilities which can lead to unexpected price changes. This is the case of gas today in the Ukrainian/Russian gas crisis, which is a heat crisis: more than 70% of the imported gas in the EU is used for the heating of households or for heat needs in industrial processes. While biomass fuels are still subject to changes in price over time, these are less extreme and are independent from geopolitical circumstances as biomass is mostly EU locally sourced.
A source of economic development and job creation: Biomass used for heating can stimulate local economics and create jobs by driving investments in agriculture, forestry, logistics, installation and maintenance activities and by giving value to local resources that were not mobilized and used before.
Dedicated biomass power plants vs co-firing: dedicated biomass plants are specifically designed to use biomass as fuel. They often use low cost fuels such as wood chips and, in some cases, agricultural by-products such as straw. Co-firing offers a possibility to produce large amounts of renewable electricity using existing power facilities. In this case high quality wood fuels such as pellets are used. Pellets are milled to powder and burned with coal in existing conventional power plants. In some recent cases co-firing plants have been converted to use 100% biomass. Co-firing or conversion of existing coal-fired plants to biomass results in fairly low electricity generation costs.
Electricity can be generated with a wide range of biomass technologies. Biomass can be converted into electricity using processes similar to those used with fossil fuels, such as:
Steam/turbine: This technology is based on the direct burning of biomass in a boiler to produce steam. The steam then drives a turbine, which turns a generator to convert the power into electricity.
Gasification: Through gasification, biomass is heated in an environment that enables the solids to be converted into a synthesis gas, which can then be burned in conventional boilers or used in turbines to produce electricity.
Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC): This technology is based on a turbogenerator working as a normal steam turbine to transform thermal energy into mechanical energy and finally into electric energy through an electric generator.
These technologies can be used in CHP plants together with heat production or in normal power plants.
A low-carbon option through the substitution of the most carbon intensive fossil fuel: If sustainable biomass is used, the short-term replacement of coal in power plants allows savings of GHG emissions and is more beneficial than continuing to burn fossil fuels.
A clean, dispatchable renewable source of power: The use of biomass in power plants is needed as a steady, dispatchable complement to other more variable RES electricity technologies while waiting for new technologies to address this variability.
Reaching the EU climate and energy goals: The use of biomass in power plants is a bridge towards reaching the EU climate and energy goals while continuing to develop other efficient energy systems (eg: CHP) and RES.