It will come as a surprise to many readers that more renewable energy comes from biomass both worldwide and in the UK than from any other renewable energy technology. Some may even be unsure as to exactly what ‘bioenergy’ is. As a trade association, the obscurity and misunderstanding surrounding this technology is our greatest challenge.
Bioenergy is energy generated from biomass fuels, which include any plant material or animal residue available as a fuel feedstock. This form of energy has always played a key role in power supply and today accounts for over 14% of global supply.
Modern bioenergy derives its fuels from sustainably grown energy crops and agricultural and forestry residues and uses efficient conversion technologies, such as gasification and pyrolisis.
Bioenergy accounts for 82% of UK renewable energy with wood as a fuel for homes and industry (30%) now surpassing large-scale hydro (15%) as the UK’s most important single source of renewable energy.
It is a renewable source of energy because the carbon dioxide emitted when biomass fuels are burned has recently been taken out of the atmosphere by the plants making up the fuel. Provided that we don’t use our fuel more quickly than we produce it, we don’t put any more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we take out.
Perhaps the single most important attribute of bioenergy is that it involves a real energy carrier, a fuel. This means that, unlike any other renewable energy technology, it can be moved around and stored. Unlike wind or waves, you can have bioenergy where you want it, when you want it. You can also specify how you want it whether as wood chips, pellets, bio-oil, biogas, methanol (for fuel cells) or even A-1 Jet Fuel.
Being a fuel in the energy world is important. It means that bioenergy can fulfil most of the roles performed by fossil fuels heat, electricity, combined heat and power and transport fuels. This not only means that bioenergy has far greater market potential than other renewables but also that conversion technologies developed for fossil fuels can be adapted to utilise biofuels.
The growth of renewables markets is being driven by the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As climate change climbs the political agenda, the energy ‘big boys’ are taking a close interest in renewables; to quote one of the biggest, Shell: ‘Renewable sources are expected to provide 5%-10% of the world’s energy within 25 years, perhaps rising to 50% by 2050.’
With this sort of potential for market growth, serious investment by industry and government in renewables, and particularly bioenergy, is long overdue.
The Government is about to publish a renewable energy consultation paper, which will consider how 10% of the UK’s electricity may be generated from renewable sources by 2010. We expect this to mark a turning point in Government policy on renewables.
If UK industry is to have any real chance to compete in world markets, we need political recognition that bioenergy offers a huge new opportunity for UK manufacturing. We also need to create a significant home market.
This means encouraging the growth of energy crops and the Department of Trade and Industry sorting out fair access to electricity and heat markets, fair prices for embedded generation and proper support for renewables.
The UK could gain a clear advantage in bioenergy, if we can only grasp the opportunity. With the willing participation of a forward-looking government, we could lead the world in serving the fastest-growing market of the next millennium.