by Frederic Simon
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has acknowledged “weaknesses” in how biomass energy is counted in national statistics after several EU countries reported a sudden increase in residential wood burning to meet their 2020 renewable energy goals.
Biomass is often portrayed as an overlooked energy giant, with the European Commission saying it is “the main source of renewable energy in the EU, with a share of almost 60%” – more than wind and solar combined.
Yet, experts agree these figures are probably overstated because of the way biomass is counted in EU renewable energy statistics, especially when it is burned for heating.
“The worst way to burn biomass is to do it in an open fire,” said Jan Rosenow, director of European programmes at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), a think-tank specialised in clean energy.
According to Rosenow, around 30% of the energy contained in a wood log is transformed into usable heat when burned in a fireplace, while the remaining 70% is just lost and “goes up your chimney”.
However, that is not reflected in official EU statistics, which assume that 100% of the biomass is burned efficiently.
By contrast, other renewable heating technologies like heat pumps, which run on electricity, are measured according to a different metric: energy output, or useful energy.
The result, according to Rosenow, is that biomass-based heating looks disproportionately bigger than it really is in the EU’s official statistical reports.
“Biomass is counted in primary energy terms, not useful energy. If you used useful energy excluding energy waste, it would probably be a lot less,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.
IEA admits ‘weaknesses’ in the methodology
The “primary energy” metric used for measuring biomass is not just reflected in EU statistics, it is an international convention that is also used by most countries worldwide as well as the United Nations and the International Energy Agency.
Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, acknowledged that the statistical gap between primary and useful energy was problematic and needs to be addressed.
“It’s a good point, which requires very good consideration,” Birol told EURACTIV when asked about the way biomass energy is reported in energy statistics.
“The current methodology, I believe has some weaknesses,” he acknowledged, saying the issue “merits careful consideration by our governments and also by the industry”.
“But I admit, there are some weaknesses.”
Birol spoke to EURACTIV on 30 November while on a visit to Brussels to promote heat pumps as a clean energy alternative to Russian fossil gas.
In a recent IEA report, Birol said heat pumps were “an indispensable part of any plan to cut emissions and natural gas use” because they are hyper-efficient, climate-friendly, and help consumers reduce energy consumption.
However, statistical conventions currently make heat pumps and other electric heating solutions look insignificant in comparison to biomass, whose contribution to the EU’s renewable heating targets is calculated in primary energy terms.
Worse, the statistical loophole acts as an incentive for EU countries to encourage wood-burning as an energy source to meet their renewable energy targets, Rosenow said.
“The way it’s being treated under the renewable energy directive is that the more biomass you burn, the better it is for your target,” he explained.
“EU countries that have a very high share of renewable heat tend to be the countries that burn a lot of biomass. And if they burn it inefficiently, it’s even better because they get more credit.”
“It really makes no sense but that’s the way the statistics are being done,” Rosenow told EURACTIV.
Global warming impact
The inclusion of biomass as a renewable heating source has implications beyond statistics: It could also be a significant driver of global warming emissions, campaigners say.
To achieve climate neutrality by 2050, the EU has set targets for increased CO2 storage in forests, soils and other land sinks, which suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help mitigate global heating.
But according to recent research, the European Union is rapidly losing its forest carbon sink, with wood harvesting for biomass a key driver behind the loss.
“There is a clear link between biomass harvesting and land sink loss in some member states,” according to the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), a US-based non-profit, which published the research last November.
Biomass energy consumption more than doubled across the EU since 1990, with most of the increase occurring since 2002, after the EU issued its first directive including biomass as renewable energy, the researchers found.
For the authors of the study, EU biomass policies must urgently be changed in order to stop the loss of Europe’s forest carbon sink and keep global warming under control.
“Achieving climate stability will require a much larger amount of carbon storage in forests, which will be impossible unless biomass harvesting is significantly reduced,” the report said.
EU countries report sudden increase in residential wood burning
Among EU countries, several governments have already taken advantage of the statistical loophole.
At the turn of the last decade, several member states reported sudden increases in residential wood burning, allowing them to meet their 2020 renewable energy targets agreed at EU level.
This was the case for example in Hungary, which revised its methodology for assessing residential wood use in 2015 and applied it retroactively from 2010.
“The result was a 250% increase overnight in reported residential wood consumption, which then allowed Hungary to claim it had exceeded its EU-mandated renewable energy target at that time,” says a 2020 report by PFPI founder Mary S. Booth and researcher Ben Mitchell.
Startlingly, even unburnt wood is counted in EU statistics as renewable energy, the PFPI report found.
But Hungary was not the only EU country using the statistical trick.
In Slovakia, the share of renewables in the energy mix suddenly jumped from 11.9% to 16.9% in 2019 after a survey was carried out among households to estimate their use of biomass in heating and cooling.
And in Poland, media reported a similar change in methodology showing much greater use of wood in domestic boilers, fireplaces and kitchens, the PFPI report said.
According to researcher Mary S. Booth, it’s bad enough that unburned residential heating wood is being counted toward the EU’s renewable energy targets.
“But a potentially even bigger scandal is that several countries have ‘revised’ their estimates of how much wood is burned for residential heating, thereby allowing them to suddenly achieve their renewable energy targets,” she told EURACTIV via email.
As a result, burning solid biomass accounted for about 40% of energy counted toward the EU’s renewables target in 2020, according to the PFPI report.
Brussels declines to comment
The European Commission, which oversees the collection of data from member states via its agency Eurostat, declined to comment when asked by EURACTIV about the statistical issue with biomass.
However, one EU source familiar with the matter told EURACTIV it would be too demanding to recalculate the data.
“Data for useful energy are not collected as European statistics as it would impose an excessive burden on the reporting system for energy statistics,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Besides, biomass is not the only energy source whose statistical contribution is calculated on the basis of primary energy use, the source added, saying that “exactly the same methodology” is used for “all combustible fuels” in statistical conventions.
“Solid biofuels (biomass) are treated exactly the same as natural gas and heating oil as an example,” the EU source said.
According to Rosenow, the reluctance to change is also caused by resistance from Nordic countries and Austria, which have achieved high shares of renewable energy thanks to biomass.
Changing the methodology “would basically make them look a lot worse,” he said. “And this is a major stumbling block in this discussion”.
The bioenergy industry, for its part, dismissed suggestions that biomass is given disproportionate importance in EU statistics due to the calculation methodology.
“This is because using energy output instead of energy input would be wrong and misleading in terms of data, considering the versatility and diversity present in biomass-fuelled appliances,” said Bioenergy Europe, a trade association.
Rather, it said data for household use of biomass “is likely an underestimation” because of the biomass locally harvested on private property, which is not sold on the market.
“All renewable solutions are necessary, and our efforts must focus on increasing the share of renewable energy and ending our reliance on unsustainable fossil fuels,” the association told EURACTIV in an emailed statement.
*first published in: Euractiv.com