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What is bioenergy?

Understanding Europe's leading renewable energy source

Bioenergy: the basics

Bioenergy refers to energy derived from natural and biological sources, known as biomass, and is available on a renewable basis. There are many different source of organic materials, also known as feedstocks, such as plants, trees, algae, or organic wastes. Even waste products like olive pits, sawdust, or animal manure have potential energy which can be unlocked through bioenergy.

Distribution of renewable gross final energy consumption in the EU27 in 2021

Bioenergy is Europe’s most important renewable energy source and in 2021, bioenergy represented 55,7% of all renewable energy! As 22% of the EU’s energy mix is renewable, this means that overall, bioenergy represented 10,2% of the gross final energy in 2021.

Distribution by energy source of the various final usage in the EU27 in 2021 and their relative importance in total final energy consumption​

Bioenergy’s flexibility also makes it important to Europe’s energy mix as it is the only renewable energy source capable of providing heating and cooling, electricity and transport fuel. Although bioenergy is capable of being used in all three end-uses, it is primarily used in Heating and Cooling where there are very few other renewable solutions. Bioenergy makes up 85%CHECK of all renewable heating whereas this share is much smaller in electricity generation, which is only a quarter of all EU energy, because there are a lot of other successful and affordable solutions helping the EU to decarbonize.

Distribution of the various
biomass feedstock for energy in 2021 (%)
Gross inland energy consumption of biomass in 2021 and
potential in 2050 for the EU27 + UK (in Mtoe)

Currently, most biomass used for bioenergy in Europe comes from wood and forests, but most growth is forecasted to come from the increased use of agricultural biomass and residues, and waste streams. In 2021, forest biomass made up almost three-fourths (71,4%) of the biomass used for energy with the remainer split roughly evenly between agricultural biomass (15,3%) and waste biomass (13,3%). By 2050, however, it is expected that over half of all biomass used for bioenergy could come from agricultural biomass. While maintaining some residues from agriculture are important for soil health and productivity, the amount of residues generated by modern agriculture can exceed the ability of the local environment to absorb and need to be dealt with. As these products still have energic value, residues which do not have other uses can be used for energy.

 

Focus on solid bioenergy

Of all bioenergy feedstocks, wood has always been the most common in Europe. However, the past decades has seen a quiet revolution as bioenergy has transitioned from a “log in the fireplace” to a modern and efficient solution using state-of-the-art 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.

State of European Forests

While some parts of the world have experienced dangerous deforestation over the past three decades, most notably in Africa and South America; European forests have represented a success story of revitalizing a key natural ecosystem.

Annual forest area net change, by decade and region,
1990-2020 (million ha per year)

In previous centuries, Europe’s forests were very poorly managed, and many areas where completely deforested. In the years since, Europe has fundamentally changed its approach to forestry but as most trees live for a hundred years or more, it can take decades before the results of different management decisions can be seen. Both the areas of forests in Europe and the number of trees in the forest have been steadily increasing for the past 30 years.

Evolution of total area (left axis) and available stock (right axis) of forest and forest available for wood supply in EU27 (million ha and billion m³)

Active management of forests is increasingly important to help forests respond to the stresses of climate change. Changes in temperature and rainfall can make a very big difference for trees which unlike animals are unable to move in response to these challenges. Active forest management also produces lots of low-quality forest biomass as some material is removed from the forest to help remaining trees grow straight and tall, which makes them ideal for timber production, and reduces the risk of forest fires or pest outbreaks. Forests are not grown for bioenergy, but revenue from biomass sold for bioenergy, usually a tenth or less of what is earned from selling high-quality material, can help offset the costs of forest management.