ICCT conference paper looks at the potential for biomass energy to 2050

Alternative fuels

The ICCT recently presented a reassessment of the global biomass potential in 2050. As the E.U. and other regions begin planning for the growth of renewable energy to 2050, burgeoning interest in increasing bioenergy use has led to questions about the planet’s available bio-resources. In recent years, a number of studies have modeled the potential of the world’s available land to produce biomass for energy use, with widely divergent results, some estimating up to three times the current global energy usage available in bioenergy.

The ICCT reviewed and reassessed these studies in a paper presented at the European Biomass Conference in Milan in June, 2012. In this paper, we found that many of these modeling studies were based on unreasonably optimistic assumptions, and that applying rough correction factors for these assumptions resulted in markedly lower estimates of biomass potential. For example, some studies assume a dramatic decline in the land area required for food production, while the FAO actually predicts that additional cropland will need to be cultivated to feed a growing population. Many studies also ignore the reality that some biomass will be too expensive to collect, and that some residues will need to be left on site to preserve soil quality.

After conducting the reassessment, we found that had these modeling studies reflected our more moderate assumptions, on average they would have found a biomass potential of about 100 EJ yr-1 of primary energy in 2050. If half of this biomass were used for heat and power and half for biofuels for transport, this would equate to up to 19 EJ yr-1 of biofuel, falling short of the IEA’s predicted demand of 32 EJ yr-1. Even then, our revised assumptions describe what we consider the maximum plausible potential, not a prediction of the supply level that will actually be achieved – even this 19 EJ of transport biofuel will only be achievable sustainably with profound changes to global land management, and substantial investment. It seems that resource availability will have to be seriously taken into account in post-2020 policy plans for renewable energy.