Is sustainability biomass’ problem and solution?

The biomass industry has a problem — its public image. A sector as reliant on government policy and subsidy as the industrial biomass market is needs the backing of the general public. But the narrative is too often dictated by NGOs challenging its environmental credentials.

The industry has come together to help prove that biomass is a renewable, sustainable energy source. But proving sustainability comes with its own problems, and could even hinder market liquidity and standardisation— the opposite of what the market intends.

The Sustainable Biomass Partnership (SBP) was created by a group of European utilities to help solve those problems and create a single framework to prove the sustainability of wood pellets and wood chips, negating the need for utilities to have individual certification programmes and standards. Any one SBP-certified wood pellet cargo could, in theory, be picked up by any one of the European utilities, increasing liquidity in the market. But the reality will not quite match the expectation.

The biggest obstacle comes in the shape of the Netherlands’ subsidy scheme — SDE+. After months of political wrangling with NGOs in the country, the Dutch government released its sustainability criteria a year ago. It has not yet been voted into law — but it is expected to be passed at the end of 2017, before domestic co-firing with wood pellets resumes.

The Dutch require sustainable forest management to be proven at the forest management unit (FMU) level, which the SBP does not. The SBP could be used to prove sustainability along the supply chain, but only in addition to FMU level certification. A consultation is due to begin imminently in the Netherlands to establish what certification can be used to verify sustainability, and how. As the Netherlands is the next anticipated major source of wood pellet demand — up to 3.5mn t/yr — the loss of its full support for the SBP was a major blow to the scheme.

Other problems arise because of individual utilities’ ability to buy from certain countries, and varying specifications in the make-up of wood pellets. Differing specifications on pellet size, ash and mineral content and calorific value can all create barriers to trade.

The crux of the matter is that one SBP-certified wood pellet cargo cannot be bought by all, causing the scheme to lose a bit of its lustre.

It is still early days in the SBP’s development, as only 12 producers worldwide have gained the certification. But it is a step in the right direction. The UK has declared that the SBP certification scheme meets its sustainability requirements, meaning that the world’s largest buyer of wood pellets — Drax — plans to use it as its primary measure to check supply sustainability by the end of this year, as long as enough suppliers can gain accreditation.

The Belgian government is evaluating the SBP framework. And the EU is consulting stakeholders, including existing certification schemes, before it releases its sustainability policy, planned for the end of this year. Further afield, the Japanese have shown some interest in the scheme.

Sustainability will remain an important issue in the biomass industry and its proof will be vital in garnering wider support. The SBP is the best tool that the sector has available to demonstrate wood pellets’ credentials and win over the general public against a slew of negative press articles and rhetoric from NGOs. The industry as a whole is behind the SBP and will unite to help promote its role in proving sustainability and highlighting the role that biomass can play in tackling global climate change.

But there are challenges ahead if the industry is to prove sustainability while enhancing market liquidity and the standardisation of wood pellets. The adoption of the SBP by the Dutch would have been a huge victory.

2 thoughts on “Is sustainability biomass’ problem and solution?

  1. Thanks for clarifying. As we both highlight, unfortunately there will not be one certificate that fits all the Dutch sustainability requirements but rather a combination of existing certification schemes and perhaps some new testing procedures will be needed — the government recently said that a “practical test” for carbon debt and indirect land use change criteria is yet to be formulated. Hopefully everyone will better understand how the certification schemes will work together following the government’s consultation due to start shortly.

  2. The Dutch requirements require, over time, forest biomass to originate from certified forests, whereas other countries accept that the sustainability of biomass can be demonstrated at a regional level. Nevertheless, SBP has an important role to play for Dutch biomass users. Until 2023 the sustainability of biomass from small forest owners (<500 ha) can be demonstrated at a regional level, and SBP expects that it will be accepted for this purpose. It is expected that none of the existing forest management certification systems, such as FSC and PEFC, will cover all Dutch requirements. Therefore, even for biomass coming from certified forests, SBP certification will still be needed to demonstrate compliance with all Dutch criteria. Finally, SBP provides a Data Transfer System that passes relevant information along the supply chain, information that Dutch utilities will be required to collect. Neither FSC nor PEFC Chain of Custody systems provide the required information hence there is a clear role for SBP.

    In Summary, existing FMU level certification schemes do not cover all the needs of the Dutch utilities and it is, therefore, expected that SBP will play a critical role in demonstrating biomass sustainability in the Netherlands.

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