Researchers and industry representatives in Sweden and Finland who develop technology for turning woody raw materials into biofuels and "green" chemical are concerned that the current energy policy framework—once it has been updated—will not sufficiently support the development of commercial biorefinery production, thus risking to delay its roll out and, in turn, the move away from using fossilised energy and petrochemicals.
At least this seemed to be the mood of a seminar at Umeå, Sweden this month on ‘New Products from Forests Supply Chains and Biorefinery Processes’, arranged by the research environment Bio4Energy and Biofuel Region’s research project Forest Refine.
One researcher, Magnus Matisons of Forest Refine, questioned whether it was indeed the European Union—most of whose member states had “hardly any forestry industry” and whose officials were subject to lobbying by “other sectors [than the forestry and biorefinery industry] and environmental groups”—that should be allowed to lay down the conditions for Sweden’s and Finland’s use of their considerable forest resource.
Referring to such attempts at persuasion, he drew nods from the audience when saying the position expressed in some reports and blog posts that tree biomass should never be counted as being “carbon neutral”—or producing no net climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions when used as fuels or other products—under EU legislation being updated, where built on flawed assumptions and erroneous use of “systemic boundaries”.
“I think it is due to a lack of knowledge. The part of deforestation which is underway [and taken to unleash great amounts of GHG as swathes of rain forest are burned down or clear cut] is taking place in the Tropics. In Scandinavia there is a long tradition of responsible forestry which is completely different. But I am not sure everybody sees the difference”, Matisons said on the sidelines of the seminar.
To try to make Nordic forestry and biorefinery industry rally and put their own version of the facts across to politicians, he has started a “lobbying network” supported by 11 organisation, of which hygiene product maker SCA, forestry operators Holmen Skog and Sveaskog, and Biofuel Region. As a next step, network members are set to meet officials from Swedish authorities and a European Parliament member at seminar 8 May at Sundsvall entitled ‘Should We Let the EU Decide?’
In a presentation to the New Products seminar, meanwhile, Matisons pointed to recent research by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences showing that, by using woody materials and residues to produce heat, power and fuels, the richly forested nation Sweden avoided almost as large a volume of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions as its annual output. This latter stood at 66.2 tonnes of CO2 eq in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency. The SLU study considered emissions in a life-cycle perspective.
“In this way, Sweden saves 60 million tonnes of CO2 emissons per year… mostly by avoiding the use of fossil fuels”, Matisons held.
In 2011, Sweden drew 35 per cent of primary energy supply from renewable sources, of which almost 23 procent from “biofuels and waste”, according to an Energy Policies of the IEA Countries 2013 Review.
Policies shaped using ‘wrong’ assumptions
For starters, Matisons said, it was “wrong” to assume that that the best use for the climate of trees wouldalways be to leave them to grow old in the forest. In fact, he claimed, when evaluated on a stand level—that is,as a group of trees which are more or less homogeneous with regard to species compositions, density, size and sometimes habitat—young trees which were busy growing sequestered more carbon than old ones.
He said this implied that, at least in Sweden, forests subject to regular harvesting could soak up more or as much CO2 as those which were not, but under a well-designed forest management regime. In Scandinavia, such a regime would consider the contribution of forests on a landscape level and in a rotational cycle of harvesting approximately every 100 years, he added.
Still Matisons felt that, partly because politicians were not doing enough to encourage industry to embrace new biorefinery technology, global proliferation of commercial biorefinery was “ten-to-20 years away”. But others at the seminar, held at the Umeå branch of the SLU, were less pessimistic.
“While much work is still needed to reach commercial biorefineries, there is a stronger and stronger connection between [biorefinery actors] in northern Sweden and Finland. I foresee that a scale up [to commercial capacity] will take place in five-to-ten years” time, said Clas Engström, CEO of SP Processum.
And the technology is there for the taking, intoned Krister Sjöblom of Valmet. “The technology for full-scale second-generation bioethanol production is available”, Sjöblom said, adding that Beta Renewables of Italy and the Swedish clean-technology company SEKAB both possessed such technology, and Beta Renewables in “full scale”. The latter group was about to launch three more full-scale operations in the U.S.A., Brazil and China, respectively, he said.
In fact, researchers from one of the seminar organisers, Bio4Energy, had supplied SEKAB with innovative solutions for upscaling bioethanol production from woody materials and biorefinery residue to a near industrial level. Bio4Energy researchers were also leading efforts to develop torrefaction technology—a pre-treatment method by which biomass is roasted to make it light-weight, water resistant and suitable for turning into fuels and electricity. A demonstration plant was to come online in autumn this year at Holmsund, at a twenty-minute drive from Umeå, Anders Nordin of Umeå University said.
Meanwhile, in a further sign that companies downstream to Valmet were catching on, especially in the chemical industry and “technological” development firms, Sjöblom said, presumptive buyers of bio-based technology or renewable energy services initially would complain of the high price of Valmet’s products. But the firms would still turn out to be willing to “share the risks” of commercialisation ventures in the sector, according to Sjöblom. And, he revealed, even though bio-based business contained “a lot of risks… we sometimes have difficulty meeting the demand”.
By Anna Strom