Understanding Europe's leading renewable energy source

In his list of 5 key priorities for the European Union, former European Commission's President Jean-Claude Juncker expressed his willingness to make the EU the world’s #1 player in renewable energy. Bioenergy must have a leading role if we Europe is to achieve this goal. In 2017, the consumption of bioenergy reached 119.301 kilotonnes of oil equivalent, more than double than in 2000 and equivalent to the annual coal consumption in the industrial, residential and service sectors ...combined. Beside this unique role in the future European energy mix, biomass also offers considerable advantages when it comes to the EU’s energy security, affordability and sustainability priorities.

  • Bioenergy: the basics

    Bioenergy refers to all types of energy derived from the conversion of natural, biological sources (referred to as biomass) available on a renewable basis. Within our immediate environment lies an abundant source of organic materials (also known as feedstocks) such as plants, trees, algae, or organic wastes, which all can be valuable fuels as soon as a technology makes it possible to efficiently extract all of its energy potential. Biomass currently used in Europe includes wood from forests, agricultural crops and residues, by-products from the wood and agricultural industry, herbaceous and woody energy crops, municipal organic wastes and manure, and could potentially integrate algae and marine biomass in the future. Bioenergy is the only renewable energy source capable of providing heating and cooling, electricity and transport fuel.

  • Biomass in EU-28

    In 2017, mobilized biomass of all types produced energy that accounted for 144.087 kilotonnes of oil equivalent. More than two thirds of biomass consumed in Europe consists of solid biomass, mostly forestry residues and to a limited extent agricultural by-products. Examples of solid biomass feedstocks are:

    • wood industry by-products
    • wood from silviculture
    • waste wood
    • tall fescue
    • switchgrass
    • short rotation coppice
    • miscanthus
    • hedges
    • green waste

    Biogas and biofuels represent respectively 11,7% and 11,4% of the gross inland energy consumption of biomass. Examples of these feedstocks include:

    • beets
    • cereals
    • crop by-products
    • grass
    • intermediate crops
    • linseed
    • livestock manure
    • maize
    • marine biomass
    • rapeseed oil
    • sludge
    • waste vegetable oil and animal fats

    Finally, renewable municipal waste is the fourth main type of biomass for energy, reaching 7,3% in 2017. Examples include agri-food waste and household bio-waste.

  • Focus on: solid bioenergy

    Of all biomass materials, wood has always been the most used in Europe. However over the past decades, the model of wood consumption has changed, moving away from the "log in the fireplace" one to that of modern, efficient appliances. The residential sector retains the largest share of solid wood energy consumption (27%), followed by the industrial use of wood chips, in installations above 1 megawatt (22%) and the small-scale use of woodchips at 14%. Pellet consumption in modern appliances is also growing fast, representing 6% of the EU's total wood energy consumption.

  • Focus on: biofuels

    The European biofuel industry is split into two distinct sectors, bioethanol and biodiesel, each one relying on different feedstocks to produce fuel. According to ePURE, the European Renewable Ethanol association, 5,71 million tonnes of co-products were produced in 2017, of which 4,32 was animal feed. ePURE members, for example, produced ethanol using cereals (75%), sugars (21%), ligno-cellulosic biomass (4%). In the EU, bioethanol is mainly produced from grains and sugar beet derivatives. Wheat is mainly used in northwestern Europe, while corn is predominantly favoured in Central Europe and Spain. The most common feedstock to produce biodiesel is rapeseed oil, accounting for 44% of the total biodiesel production in 2017, but its position is decreasing considerably, mostly due to the higher use of recycled vegetable oil/used cooking oil (UCO) and palm oil.

  • Focus on: biogas

    The European biogas sector is very diverse. Depending on national priorities, whether biogas production is primarily seen as a means of waste management, of generating renewable energy or a combination of the two, countries have structured their financial incentives to favour certain feedstocks over others. In this regard, two countries represent the two ends of the scale: Germany and UK. Germany generates 92% of its biogas from the fermentation of agricultural crops and crop residues while the United Kingdom relies almost entirely on landfill and sewage sludge gas, accounting for 60% of its overall biogas production. All other countries use a variety of feedstock combinations. When looking at the entire EU-28, field cropsmanureagri-food industry waste represent around 3/4 of the biomass used for biogas production, a share that has tripled since 2010. Sewage sludge and landfills represent the last fourth.

  • Focus on: municipal & industrial waste

    Waste-to-energy is the fourth most important category of bioenergy feedstock used in Europe. More than 492 installations in EU-28 could rely on the yearly waste production of both industries and municipalities. In 2015, Europeans treated a total amount of 245,2 million tonnes of municipal waste out of which 27% went to waste-to-Energy plants (67 million tonnes) still remaining behind recycling (30%) and landfill (24%) practices.

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