1/2014

Bioenergy and biofuels have staying power

Jukka Rintala

 

Professor Jukka Rintala says that despite the EU’s new renewable energy consumption targets for 2030, the most sustainable forms of bioenergy and biofuels will still be around in the future. There is a global demand for them.

 

EU’s new renewable energy consumption targets for 2030, proposed by the European Commission and binding on EU-level but not for individual Member States, need not mean a U-turn on our path towards cleaner road traffic, says Professor Jukka Rintala of TUT.

The EU continues striving for a low-carbon economy. The European Commission presented new and ambitious targets for EU’s climate and energy policy on 22 January 2014. If accepted, the new framework, known as the 2030 framework for climate and energy policies, will replace the 2020 climate and energy package, which is famous for its “20-20-20” reduction targets.

The Commission proposes that the greenhouse gas emissions be reduced by 40% below the 1990 level by 2030. This is an ambitious figure compared to the previous 20% reduction target laid down in the 2020 package.

Biowaste means different things in different countries

  • In Finland, household biowaste consists of used coffee grounds, fruit peels and other household waste
  • In Central Europe and the UK, it also contains a large amount of gardening waste, such as grass and flowers
 

What? No binding targets?

In addition, the Commission proposes that the share of renewable energy should be increased to at least 27% of the EU’s energy consumption by 2030. Again, this is an ambitious increase compared to the 20% target laid down previously.

But interestingly, the 27% renewables target would only be binding on EU-level. It would not bind the individual EU Member States.

This has raised some concerns at least in Finland. “If it is no longer obligatory to use one fifth of biofuels in petrol and diesel fuels by 2020 as previously stipulated,” the environmentally aware citizens say, “will this mean a U-turn on our path towards a low-carbon economy? After all, biofuels were supposed to usher in a new and cleaner era in road traffic!”

Biofuels are made from different raw materials

  • The biofuel industry seeks sustainable, new, non-food feedstocks, such as:
  • municipal solid waste
  • industrial byproducts
  • forestry byproducts
  • agricultural byproducts, such as straw and specially cultivated plants that produce a large biomass
 

If the biofuel content in petrol and diesel fuels is watered down, what will happen to the recent significant investments in second-generation biofuel technology? Will this pull the rug from under the fledgling market for biofuels?

Biofuels will continue moving cars

“Not to worry”, says Professor Jukka Rintala of the Department of Chemistry and Bioengineering at TUT.

“The most sustainable forms of bioenergy and biofuels will still be around in the future. There is worldwide demand for them, and they are being researched and developed in countries all over the world. We must continue developing even better production methods and processes.”

According to Rintala, the new, non-binding renewables target can be seen as just another type of action against climate change.

Biomass and bioenergy utilisation challenges

  1. How much energy will really be needed in future cities for heating, electricity and traffic?
  2. From which raw materials is the energy produced? All materials are utilised.
  3. What is the cleanest source of energy? In general, wind and solar energy are the cleanest. Waste-based bioenergy is also a clean and ethically sound source of energy from a lifecycle perspective.
  4. How much waste is really produced? Material and energy resources are increasingly recovered from waste-based materials, and finally no material is wasted.
 

“It would give the EU Member States flexibility to transform their energy systems in a way that is adapted to their national circumstances and preferences. Some countries invest in solar power and wind power, while others invest in nuclear energy. And all countries have to invest in energy efficiency.”

The transport sector accounts for the second-biggest greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, and more than two thirds of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions come from road transport. And homes, gardens, agriculture, forestry and factories produce lots of waste, which could be utilised as a raw material for producing sustainable biofuels.

Rintala believes biofuels will continue moving cars also in the future.

Role of bioenergy is changing

“Bioenergy will play a certain role in the heating of houses in countries where winters are cold, but the role of bioenergy is changing. In the future it may be used to cover sudden peaks in heating or electricity demand. The ability to be stored in an oil-like form, made out of biomass, will also be important,” he explains.

“Our goal is to promote the most sustainable energy forms. In traffic fuels this means certain biofuels as well as fuels made from certain raw materials using certain technologies. What counts is the raw material and technology involved. We are looking into several different energy technologies and using various raw material bases.”

The technologies that have the clearest environmental benefits, such as the ones utilising a waste-based material – especially if there is no competing technology or use for the waste material – will survive, according to Rintala.

He is convinced many countries will continue investing in the best renewable technologies. Why?

“Because they bring jobs, reduce dependency on external energy suppliers, cut emissions and provide an end use to the waste biomass.”

Text: Leena Koskenlaakso
Photo: Petri Laitinen

 
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