What share of bioenergy does wood represent at EU-28 level?

Bioenergy is commonly used to refer to renewable energy made available from materials derived from biological sources. As such, bioenergy can potentially be extracted from a wide range of feedstocks present in our close environment thanks to adapted conversion technologies. Among all biomass materials, wood has always been the most popular source of energy used in Europe. In 2015, 70% of the bioenergy consumed in Europe was sourced from forests – providing 29 days of clean energy to the whole EU.

As bioenergy is the EU-28’s most important source of renewable energy, woody biomass is one of the main drivers of Europe’s energy transition. Forests are also a key source of biodiversity and carbon storage. Therefore, understanding the dymanic between the production of bioenergy and forest management is essential in order to have a clear vision of bioenergy’s environmental contribution.

What type of woody materials are used to produce bioenergy?

Bioenergy providers in Europe do not use any type of wood indiscriminately; both for economic and environmental reasons, they mainly mobilise woody biomass sourced from byproducts of forest management operations and the wood industry such as sawmills. Historically, the European bioenergy sector has been developed to work in synergy with other wood-based industries to give value to non-mobilised and/or low value biomass such as sawdust, mill residues, thinnings, low-quality wood, tops and limbs. Bioenergy generators do not use high quality timber, as using lumber would make the price of energy wholly uncompetitive for end consumers.

As an example, in Belgium for the winter season 2016-2017, the price of 1 m3 of lumber (100-120€/m3) was almost 10 times higher than the price of 1 m3 of wood for energy (6-13 €/m3). Bioenergy players are not able to match the prices offered by the timber industry. Based on the following price index, using Belgian lumber to produce 1 MWh of electricity would range between 833-1000 €. This would actually be 10 times more than the average price of electricity in Belgium (108-235 €/MWh).

What is the role of bioenergy in the EU-28 wood-based sector?

With the enforcement of the EU-28 objective on renewable energy, the bioenergy sector has grown steadily, becoming an established player of the wood industry alongside traditional industries such as sawmills, paper producers or panelers.
However, when looking at the EU-28 wood removals according to end use, the great majority goes to the wood industry (78%). Only a fraction of woody materials are used for energy (22%) mostly tops, limbs and low quality wood. This indicates that bioenergy doesn’t necessarily compete with other uses of wood.

Where does the EU-28 wood fuel come from?

EU-28 woody fuel consumption reached almost 98 million m3 in 2015.5 According to UNECE/FAO, only 4,9% of this total consumption came from woody material imports. This means that more than 95% of EU-28 bioenergy consumption comes largely from local sourcing, providing added value to regional economies and helping the EU-28 to reduce its energy dependency.

What is the current state of play of EU-28 forests?

Contrary to common belief, EU-28 forests have been steadily growing over the past decades. In 1990, European forests represented a total amount of 19,7 billion m3. In 2015, EU-28 forest reached 26 billion m3, meaning that forest stock increased by 32% over the last quarter of a century.

This growth is due to two main reasons: forest areas increasing (1) and a growth of standing volumes (2) :

(1) According to Eurostat, EU-28 forest coverage gained 322.800 hectares every year, meaning that European forests are increasing by the size of a football field every minute.

(2) On average, about 62% of the annual forest increment in Europe is actually felled, meaning that 38% of this annual increment remains in forests, as shown in the below graphic. The situation can vary from one country to another. Forest spreading is more common in the Mediterranean region, in countries such as Italy, France, Spain, and Slovenia, where at least 40% of the annual increment remains untouched.

What are the main challenges for the future of EU-28 forests?

The fact that forest stock keeps increasing as well as its carbon sequestration capacity can be considered as positive news for Europe. On the flip side, this creates upcoming challenges for an urbanised Europe to maintain and mobilise the full potential of its forests.

According to the latest State of Europe’s Forests Report, 3% of the total forest area in Europe is damaged, most commonly caused by biotic agents such as insects and diseases. On the other hand, the amount of deadwood, particularly standing deadwood, has increased slightly in most of Europe’s regions over the past 20 years. The average volume of deadwood, both standing and lying, ranges between 8 m3/ha in Northern Europe and 20 m3/ha in central Western Europe.

A lack of control or management can generate additional concerns such as forest fires, especially in the Mediterranean region. In 2015 alone, there were more than 58.000 forest fires registered in Europe with a total surface burnt of more than 256.000 ha, releasing 1.9 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere according to JRC initial estimation.

Bioenergy can play a major role in combatting forest degradation, thanks to extra sources of income to forest owners, municipalities and governments to manage their forests sustainably in the long-run.

Discover, through the example of Juan José Mayans, municipal Engineer in Serre (Spain) and Jean-Claude Tucoulat, forest owner in Pays d’Othe (France), how this can take place.

 

Has the EU-28 carbon stock capacity decreased?

Carbon stock in EU-28 forests has constantly increased over the past 15 years. European forests store large amounts of carbon both above ground (in the leaves, stems, and other parts of plants) and below ground (trees produce large quantities of roots , rotting leaves, debris, and soil organisms that contain carbon).

Compared to 2000, 2015 saw an increase in both the carbon stored in the aerial parts of forests and below-ground by 19% and 21%, respectively.

Between 2005 and 2015, the average annual sequestration of carbon in forest biomass, soil and forest products reached 719 million tonnes of CO2. To put this into context, this is equal to the average annual emissions of 97 million Europeans.

 

What is the potential for sustainable woody bioenergy production?

Discussing the potential for sustainable woody bioenergy development is subject to debate as it depends on many variables and assumptions.

Simple estimates of forest biomass potential that could be mobilised for energy use can be derived from the current size of forests, forest removals and forest bioenergy sector of a given country. Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA Bioenergy) has estimated the potential for forest biomass mobilisation for energy use.

According to the IEA’s estimation, 180.000 ktoe of forest biomass can be mobilised for energy use if current mobilisation logistics are optimised, the proportion of sustainably managed forests are increased and the quality management of mobilised biomass is improved.

The primary energy production of forest biomass in the EU-28 was 85.278 ktoe in 2015, this indicates there is still room for an increase in forest biomass mobilisation.

If forest biomass mobilisation could reach 180.000 ktoe, it could replace 67% of the gross inland consumption of solid fossil fuel used in 2015!

For more information, download the following factsheet.