Sustainable Biomass Production
European utilities move toward a common verification system.
Written by Gordon Murray
People hate coal. It’s dirty and releases nitrogen oxides that form smog and sulphur dioxides that cause acid rain. Metals don’t fare much better, as even the tiniest amount of mercury can have a devastating impact on the human nervous system, especially in children, as well as cause multi-organ damage and death. The same goes for lead, which can cause brain damage, impair growth, damage kidneys and trigger learning and behavioural problems. Heavy metals, like cadmium and chromium, cause cancer.
Activists take every opportunity to remind the European power utilities of these facts, employing a host of imaginative ways to embarrass and inconvenience them – such as chaining themselves to gates, climbing cranes, hijacking rail cars and blowing things up. The utilities are being especially vigilant to ensure that they don’t open biomass up to the same threats. To do this, they must demonstrate that biomass’ sustainability is of vital importance.
To that end, RWE-Essent, Electrabel and Drax have each implemented their own biomass sustainability verification schemes. Although they have each worked well, there have been drawbacks:
Consequently, seven European utilities with the Industrial Wood Pellet Buyers group (IWPB) are working toward replacing the independent schemes with a single standard verification system.
- Opponents don’t see the schemes as being independent and transparent.
- Producers selling to all three utilities must manage three separate certification systems.
- Lack of uniformity makes it difficult for utilities to trade among one another and still maintain confidence in sustainability.
- The schemes are difficult for smaller producers to implement.
Action of the European Commission
The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) of the European Union (EU) came into force in 2009 and set an overall EU target of 20% of total energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2020, as well as setting individual binding national targets for each of the 27 member states.
The RED stated that the European Commission (EC) should report by December 2009 on what is required for a sustainability scheme for the use of biomass. Surprisingly, the EC did not propose binding criteria at EU level, but instead recommended that each member state pursue its own sustainability criteria. This led to protests not only from the environmental sector, but also from the World Bioenergy Association, the European Biomass Association, and the utilities as represented by the Union of the Electricity Industry, more commonly known as Eurelectric.
Eurelectric feared that the development of many different national sustainability schemes would create inefficiencies and increase costs, leading to biomass trade barriers and investment deterrence from uncertainty over long-term fuel supply in a changing regulatory environment. Eurelectric said EU-wide harmonized sustainability criteria is needed to provide reliable evidence to the general public that biomass is a sustainable fuel.
Now, the EC is taking a second look at its recommendations. It will report by December 31, 2011, on “whether national schemes have sufficiently and appropriately addressed the sustainability related to the use of biomass from inside and outside the EU, whether these schemes have led to barriers to trade and barriers to the development of the bioenergy sector, and it will consider if additional measures such as common sustainability criteria at EU level would be appropriate.”
Rationale for Universal Sustainability Criteria
In the EU, around 5% of energy consumption is from bioenergy. EC projections suggest that biomass use will double, supplying half of the total contribution for reaching the 20% renewable energy target in 2020. But not all biomass is wholly sustainable. Pressure on arable land, peat lands and forested regions for production of biomass is in full force. For instance, large-scale planting of oil palm has accompanied deforestation in a number of tropical countries, and this appears likely to continue and greatly expand. Acquisition of large land areas in developing countries for growing other crops to extract vegetable oils for export has resulted in displacement of subsistence farmers and loss of domestic food production.
Verification is required to ensure that biomass trade does not harm the environment or the people living in regions where biomass is produced. Another major issue is that sustainable production of biomass must be shown to not reduce the production or availability of food, fibre and water, or of living space and living standards for rural and indigenous populations. Responsible companies need to be protected from those who cut out the socially and environmentally beneficial aspects of the bioenergy business. Unsustainable biomass production would erode the climate-related environmental advantages of bioenergy.
Clearly, for the sustainable and equitable production and transport of biomass and biofuels to be done on an extensive scale, there must be an effective and internationally recognized monitoring and certification system in place.
Forest certification systems have been partly successful, but fall short in the areas of greenhouse gas savings, biodiversity and providing for the rights of local populations.
European Utilities’ Next Steps
European utilities are unwilling to wait for the European Commission’s decision. Seven of the largest utilities, along with Canadian, European, and U.S. pellet associations, are actively working through the IWPB toward a mandatory universal sustainability verification scheme, with nine principles proposed:
IWPB is working toward completing development of its sustainability approach for wood pellets by the end of 2011. The group is presently consulting stakeholders to develop sustainability indicators by the member inspection companies. Then, for the sake of independence and transparency, IWPB plans to join an existing certification organization such as the German-based ISSC Association, which operates the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification System.
- Carbon dioxide savings must be significant, i.e. greater than 60% versus fossil fuels.
- Deforestation and the use of peat is to be avoided.
- Biomass must not be sourced from protected areas.
- Soil must be protected.
- Ground and surface water must be protected.
- Air quality must be maintained or improved.
- Biomass production for energy should not endanger food and water supply, or communities where biomass is used for subsistence.
- Property rights must be respected and biomass production should contribute to local prosperity and the welfare of its employees and local people.
- Corporations involved in biomass for energy must demonstrate a moral code of conduct.
IWPB is also co-operating with the European Pellet Council on the concept of an ENplus Green label for pellet producers. ENplus is a quality and chain-of-custody label. In addition to addressing quality issues, the green option of this label would assure that the sustainability criteria are met by pellet producers.
IWPB has recognized that the costs of certification can form a serious barrier to small biomass producers. The group is considering the concept of group certification, in which the costs of certification can be shared by a number of small producers. Another consideration is to have a light version of the certification tool for small producers.
Implications for Canadian Wood Pellet Producers
Canada’s pellet producers have a strong competitive advantage over other biomass producers, especially those in developing countries. Canada is a world leader in sustainable forest management and environmental stewardship. A comprehensive legal framework requires good forest management practices and, at 150 million hectares, our country leads the world with more land certified to voluntary, market-based forest certification programs than any other country. Our pellet producers are already used to complying with the three existing sustainability verification systems that are required by RWE-Essent, Electrabel and Drax. By migrating to a single uniform sustainability verification system, our producers will be able to reduce paperwork and improve efficiency. Canada’s pellet producers support the IWPB in their efforts, and we look forward to doing our part in cleaning up the environment, in eliminating the harmful effects of coal, and in creating a brighter, healthier future for our children.
Gordon Murray is executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. He encourages all those who want to support and benefit from the growth of the Canadian wood pellet industry to join. Gordon welcomes all comments and can be contacted by telephone at 250-837-8821 or by e-mail at