Certified sustainable biomass is available at scale - it could be the quiet hero of the Polish Energy Transition

The conversion of coal plants – CHP or power-only – to run on 100% sustainable biomass wood pellets has been a proven way to displace coal in climate leading countries such as Denmark and the United Kingdom. They’ve been able to overcome limited local supplies by buying pellets on long term contracts, in part, from the Southeast of the United States of America.

While wind and solar take all the plaudits it is bioenergy that is responsible for over half of EU renewable generation – but it can do more. As the sun begins to set on the use of coal in Poland there is a way to decarbonize quickly, affordably, and save some jobs along the way. 

The only way is up

In April carbon prices hit a record high. An allowance to emit a single tonne of CO2 cost €45, up 115 % since the same time last year.  As Brussels eyes even more ambitious targets under their European Green Deal, some studies show that prices could reach €129 per tonne in 2030. As well as cost pressure Poland has its own targets to meet, under the Polish National Energy and Climate Plan the Government has committed to increase renewables from today’s 11% up to 23% by 2030 – with EU targets expected to increase in the coming years, a Polish increase will also be needed.  

Despite a remarkable rise in financed renewables (8.6GW in the last six years), its share in final energy consumption has slowed and lags behind national targets. This is due to increasing consumption born of strong economic growth, a slowdown in investment while switching to auction-based support and poor weather conditions that saw a decline in renewable production. Further still, a significant number of employees in coal-related or industrial jobs, and fiscal constraints are all hurdles to sweeping reforms. There are no energy transition silver bullets, but biomass has a role to play and addresses many of these issues.  

Full Biomass conversions make a substantial contribution to climate mitigation 

Historically, Biomass has been used to co-fire alongside coal or another fossil fuel, but times have moved on. What is required now is the conversion (also known as retrofitting) of selected, system critical existing coal plants to fire on 100% biomass. This has been the direction of travel in climate leading countries such as Demark, Netherlands and the United Kingdom.  

Sustainably sourced wood pellets can provide more than 85% emissions saving compared to coal and c.70% compared to gas - even before you include the supply chain emissions associated with the production and transport of coal and gas! That’s why biomass counts towards EU Renewables targets, is zero rated in the EU-ETS and the EU Taxonomy categorises it “substantial contribution” to climate mitigation.

Supporting wind and solar roll out, while ensuring green also means growth

Sustainable Biomass pellets, used in a converted power or Combined Heat and Power plant, displace coal one-for-one, meaning every MW of biomass coming online, takes a MW of coal off. As a result, rather than just adding to the mix, biomass is actively changing it. Not only does this reduce the risk of weather impacting renewables production, but it can also help to meet existing demand, while new wind and solar capacity keep pace with demand growth.

Ambitious plans to increase solar and wind, will pose the equally challenging issue of integrating their variability into the system. PSE have already raised concerns about the system impact of several coal plants coming offline in 2025, an issue which will only escalate as renewable production ramps up. Converted coal plants running on 100% sustainable biomass can provide renewable, reliable back-up power thus helping to integrate more wind and solar into the system.

A time, cost and jobs sensitive approach 

A conversion of existing coal assets to run on biomass gives former coal plants a new green lease of life, avoiding costly shutdowns. More importantly, as a biomass plant functions in a similar manner to a coal plant, converting rather than closing assets also preserves jobs. Over 13,000 people are directly employed by coal plants in Poland and keeping some of them in work could soften the social impact of the transition.

As well as protecting jobs, biomass conversions also create jobs. UK power provider Drax’s conversion supported 7,000 annual jobs - almost half in construction, manufacturing and transport industries. It also enabled other companies to invest over £250m in associated port, rail and road infrastructure creating a further 4,400 annual jobs.

When considering the total system cost of energy, biomass is competitive with wind and solar. Even more so when considering biomass’ ability to provide a heat source and thus an alternative to coal for Combined Heat and Power. As can be seen below from the overview based on the German energy system, from a cost perspective biomass is competitive with other renewables such as wind and solar, even more so when considering its ability to decarbonize heat.

The other key advantage of converting a coal plant to run on sustainable biomass is speed. The clock is already ticking on meeting the 2030 climate and emissions targets. A conversion can take as little as two years from final investment decision to the first biomass power. As was the case for the Avedøre CHP, in Demark, which cost around €100 million including a lifetime extension, and took under two years from final investment decision to full conversion.

Delivering sustainability at scale

Biomass pellets in themselves may not be a new feature of the energy world, but the market has developed allowing sustainable biomass to be provided at the scale needed for full conversions. Biomass is no longer a local product, its usefulness restricted by immobility, today it is a global commodity with around 50 million tonnes of capacity.

Of this capacity around 7 million tonnes are produced and exported from the US Southeast, but what companies like Enviva offer is not just volume, but security of supply. Thanks to the resources in the US Southeast and development of logistics over the last decade, biomass producers in the region are able to offer long-term, fixed price contracts. Giving power plant owners the same security over their fuel source they get with coal, but without the carbon emissions.

One of the fundamentals that underpins this is the sheer scale of the forested area. The US Southeast forest covers 1.1 million km2 – that’s 12 times the size of the considerable Polish forests and the equivalent of the land area of Poland, Germany and Sweden combined.

The area isn’t just large, it’s also highly productive. The US Southeast wood basket provides around a 5th of the industrial wood worldwide. That productivity is essential for biomass producers who rely on what is essentially trash wood, that is unusable by any other industry. We collect it, providing an extra revenue stream to the forest owner, then we pelletize it and ship it to Europe allowing plant owners to switch from high carbon coal, to low carbon pellets.

Ensuring carbon neutrality with continuous forest growth

Biomass’ essential role in the energy transition is underpinned by the biogenic carbon cycle. For fossil fuels it’s a linear one-way trip – we dig them up, burn them, and release CO2 in the atmosphere. For the biogenic carbon cycle, it’s just that – a circle. Wood is taken from a harvest, transported to a power plant and burnt and the regrowth of the trees absorbs the carbon released. The fundamental feature underpinning this is that the biomass comes from growing forests, where harvested areas will be replanted. This is exactly what is happening in the US Southeast where forest growth has increased by 21% in the last twenty years, and doubled since the 1950’s.

It seems counter intuitive that taking wood from the forest leads to a growth in inventory, but if we step back it makes perfect sense. The demand for wood, including biomass, translates into an increased supply – just like in any other market. Forest owners in the US Southeast are growing more and choosing to keep forests as forest precisely because these end markets exist.

Sustainability that comes with a triple lock

The untangling of what is essentially a local resource, the development of the supply chain to support its export and its commodification are underpinned by one thing - ensuring that the biomass used is ‘good biomass’. How do we ensure that biomass is sourced sustainably and that it has the carbon benefits it should? US Biomass has a triple lock on sustainability.

Firstly, all US forestry operations must adhere to US laws including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, as well as state-level forest best management practices.  Violation of these laws and regulations results in hefty fines or even jail time, making them some of the most stringent in the world.

Secondly, EU law, such as the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) and the EU Timber Regulation, guarantee biomass is sourced legally and from areas where forest regeneration is assured. Further, it also ensures that harvesting respects soil quality and biodiversity, that areas for nature protection remain untouched and that harvesting maintains or improves the long-term production capacity of the forest. In short, RED II ensures that biomass used in Europe, is good biomass.

Thirdly, to demonstrate and verify sustainable sourcing (and adherence with the above rules), US wood pellet manufacturers use global forestry certifications through programs such as the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP).  These certifications, which are independently audited annually, evaluate the risk of unsustainable sourcing throughout the supply chain and require mitigation measures to be put in place to remove any identified risk before a certificate can be issued.  All Enviva biomass is certified to the SBP standard.  

The only way is up for carbon prices and renewable targets. Converting coal power plants or CHPs to run on 100% biomass is not just an affordable and fast way to decarbonize, but it can protect and support jobs and generate green energy when the sun isn’t shining, and the wind isn’t blowing. The developments in the global biomass market in the last decade mean plant owners can not only secure their supply, but its sustainability too – biomass could be the quiet hero of the Polish Energy Transition

Author: Jens Wolf, Vice President and General Manager, Europe for Enviva