Betting on biomass

Sustainable use of bioenergy plays an integral role in most low-carbon scenarios. Here, we look at how standards are shaping the future of solid biofuels.

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According to a report from the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s independent advisor in the field of energy transition, fuels made from biomass will make an increasingly important contribution to achieving net-zero emissions of carbon.

At a first glance, using biomass fuels instead of fossil fuels looks like a panacea and an easy win. Yet the reality is far more nuanced; depending on how they are grown, processed and managed, biomass fuels can either provide a sustainable solution for energy generation, or do the complete opposite.

Fortunately, ISO standards can help us ensure that biomass-based fuels are sustainable and make a strong contribution to carbon neutrality. This feature describes how, by taking a look at the example of ISO standards for solid biofuels.

An automated auger for loading processed wood chip heating fuel into a biomass boiler.

Contributing to net zero

The premise underpinning sustainable biomass fuels is simple: the carbon released during energy conversion is recycled by plants to form the feedstock for new biofuels. The trick is doing this in a way that does not displace land for food crops, works efficiently and significantly reduces emissions.

There are several challenges. Firstly, the scale of change required is huge. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, in its report Global Renewable Outlook: Energy Transformation 2050, we need to more than double the contribution of biomass fuels to meet our energy needs. Secondly, this transition must be sustainable. For example, earlier this year, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) published a report about using woody biomass for energy production. The authors stated that sustainability of bioenergy is “a complex issue with no one-size-fits-all answers, but that win-win and lose-lose forest management pathways for climate and biodiversity exist”.

The JRC report added that “bioenergy sits at the nexus of two of the main environmental crises of the 21st century: biodiversity and climate emergencies. Forest bioenergy has the potential to provide part of the solution to both crises, but only when biomass is produced sustainably and used efficiently”. To this end, organizations such as the European Commission have produced sustainability criteria for biofuels, whilst ISO has been developing a whole suite of standards for solid biomass fuels, and for the sustainability of bioenergy, in order to support this.

Modern bio fireplot fireplace on ethanol gas.

Bioethanol fireplace.

Robust standards

“Bioenergy can play an important role in reducing carbon emissions, promoting environmentally friendly business opportunities and achieving a low-carbon economy,” asserts Maurice Douek, who has worked in the paper and pulp sector for decades. “As such, the use of solid biofuels, for the purposes of space heating, hot water supply, electricity and thermal energy generation, is rapidly growing worldwide,” he adds. An active member of ISO’s technical committee ISO/TC 238, Solid biofuels, Douek is a staunch supporter of standards that will help the industry prosper.

At the national level, governments globally are promoting the switch from fossil fuels to biofuels, as is the case in Canada. “One power generation station was recently converted from coal to wood pellets. District heating systems have been installed in several Canadian provinces and territories,” describes Douek.

So how do ISO standards for solid biofuels help? “The varying quality of biomass feedstocks and different applications of solid biofuels, in the form of wood pellets, wood chips and briquettes, demands standardization of these fuels, both for local consumption and to facilitate international trade,” explains Douek. Fuel quality also plays a big role in minimizing air pollution. “As air emission guidelines are developed, references are increasingly being made to ISO/TC 238 wood fuel standards,” he adds. In simple terms, better biofuels burn more efficiently and cleanly.

Sample of biofuels production in Brazil.

Innovating sustainably

ISO standards also contribute to innovation and business, as well as sustainability. “Standards are voluntary and support legislation, where sustainability criteria are stated also for solid biofuels, such as in European laws,” explains Eija Alakangas from Finland, who is also a member of ISO/TC 238. Alakangas has spent 34 years at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland as a solid biofuel expert, led the European Bioeconomy Network for ten years and has worked on standardization during this time.

But how do solid biofuels benefit business and innovation? “Wood chips are local solid biofuels and used in smaller installations. Using wood chips supports local entrepreneurship. It also increases the use of thinning wood and enhances forest growth, as well as helping to prevent forest fires,” she adds. 

Standards for solid biofuels, such as the ISO 17225 series, encourage the use of wood residues. “No large-stem wood is used for energy, whilst new pulp mills produce their energy from 100 % renewables such as wood residue,” describes Alakangas. 

ISO 17225, Solid biofuels – Fuel specifications and classes, specifies the allowable moisture content of solid biofuels, which subsequently encourages innovation, such as sampling biomass fuels automatically and measuring their moisture content. “Moisture content is the most important property for solid biofuels,” she explains. “ISO standards, such as the ISO 17225 series, state quality requirements for fuels, which will help to guarantee clean combustion for each technology,” adds Alakangas. Additionally, when ISO standards specify the raw-material origins and sources, this in turn fosters sustainability.

Steep climb ahead

However, the path to commercial biomass fuel development is not all plain sailing. “In my view, there are two big challenges. First, we need to ensure that biofuels clearly stand apart from fossil fuels in terms of increased combustion efficiency, reduced carbon footprint and carbon emissions. It’s therefore essential to pursue the development of new and improved technologies toward these goals,” explains Douek.

“Secondly, we have to demonstrate convincingly that solid biofuels have significantly lesser environmental impact than fossil fuels,” he adds. Therefore, the proper tools are needed to conduct life-cycle analysis of wood products; to assess the effect of land change or land usage related to forestry; and to have reliable methodology for performing carbon-balance calculations in order to accurately determine greenhouse gas reductions and associated benefits on climate change.

Holistic governance is required to promote a more sustainable forest-based bioeconomy overall and criteria for the sustainability of forest bioenergy rely on good standardization. ISO’s technical committee ISO/TC 287, Sustainable processes for wood and wood-based products, will address sustainability from a broader perspective including the entire supply chain. “The objective is to position the forest sector at the forefront of sustainable industries,” concludes Douek.

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