Sawdust against oil pipes

Analysts from the British analytical center Chatham House came to a conclusion in their research that the biofuel emits more carbon per energy unit than fossil fuel, while the lengthy transportation of raw materials only increases the carbon footprint of the bioenergy. In experts’ opinion, only use of wood waste that otherwise would have been burnt or stayed in forests and rotten could be considered as carbon neutral.

The Association of Renewable Energy of the Great Britain sharply criticized the theses of Chatham House. “This report is based on the misconception that it takes decades for the forest to absorb carbon.  This is not true. A well managed forest keeps permanently growing and absorbs carbon at the optimum speed...”


With the "bio" prefix

So what biofuels do more: benefit or harm?   If gasoline is derived from crude oil that does not belong to renewable resources, then biofuel is produced from various organic raw materials which could be considered renewable.

There are several types of biofuel: liquid biofuel (for internal combustion engines; for example, ethanol, methanol, biodiesel), solid biofuel (wood, straw), and gaseous biofuel (biogas, hydrogen). Ethanol is the most broadly produced and used in the world.  

Advocates of the biofuel claim that it can help the development of agricultural and forest areas and allows to provide with domestic fuel those countries which have no oil deposits. According to calculations of Brazil and American scholars, each million liters of produced bioethanol creates 38 jobs. Importantly, these vacancies emerge not at the “oil pipe” but in agricultural and forest regions. 

Russia has a tax (excise) on ethanol in any form; there is no such tax, for example, in the European Union. In experts’ opinion, this makes the development of the internal market of liquid biofuel virtually unfeasible. 


In replacement of oil

Recently, the President of Russia mentioned the essentiality of the biofuel: “It is well known that demand for biofuel is growing all over the world; gradually, it will replace the oil and gas.” The Russian Export Center (REC, a structure of Vnesheconombank) announced the beginning of issuing subsidies for biofuel producers. This measure might stimulate production of fuel pellets.   

Provisions of the bill on biofuel have been under discussion in Russia for several years. According to the President of the Russian Biofuel Association Alexei Ablaev, “Adoption of the bill and development of the biofuel market in Russia will give a new impetus to the development of rural areas, creation of high-paying jobs and growth of the tax base. The biofuel plants will also be fodder production centers, opening the possibility for developing efficient livestock production and profitable innovative businesses.” 

Pellets are the major bio product in RF at the present time. 97% of Russian pellets are exported. Last year, nearly 1.3 million granules were supplied to Europe and Asia. This demand is easy to explain: Europe is oriented on using bioenergy but it has practically no raw materials left.  


By European standards

The growing demand for woody biomass for bioenergy in the EU is a stimulus for the growth of imports of wood energy resources from other countries (including from Russia).  At the same time, European "green" sound alarm: about three-fourths of wood pellets entering Europe are produced from whole trees, and not from waste.

To streamline the management of biofuels, legislative mechanisms have been introduced in the EU to control the origin of domestic and imported raw materials. One of them is schemes of voluntary certification.  

“In the current market conditions for the Russian Federation, certification of solid biofuels produced from energy wood will be of primary importance," experts of the Russian Wildlife Fund  (WWF) believe. As long as the main consumers of Russian biofuel are European countries, to preserve their market share, domestic companies will have to ensure compliance with not only the tougher quality standards of products, but also the new environmental requirements introduced by the European Union.

In Europe, the RED directive is already in force, which excludes areas with a high level of biodiversity: primary forests, nature conservation areas, lands with high carbon stocks, i.e., wetlands and peatlands, from the list of forests permitted for the production of biofuels.


Woodenergy balance

In the opinion of expert from the Center of Environmental Innovations George Safonov, Russia has a huge potential for using wood resources with no additional forest fell but just through utilization of waste. “With the current way of logging in Russia, by the most conservative estimates, 80% of the biomass is waste. A huge amount of carbon, of calories remains either on the plots in the form of branches and all the rest, or in the form of sawdust already at the stage of wood processing.” With the ubiquitous application of biochar technology, wood waste could account for about 20% of the country's energy balance. But this requires investments and the authorities’ will…

“Pellets as a resource would be very beneficial to use in small settlements. This is particularly true in the areas with no gas pipelines and high costs of coal and fuel oil supply and storage. The wood has low caloric value, and it requires a lot of wood and non-waste processing for producing biofuel. For this reason, the ideal place to heat pellets would be a cottage village nearby a sawmill,” says Victor Strokin, Technical Director of AO GSR TEC.

However, mass production of biofuel raises concerns: after the appearance of commercially attractive technologies for the production of bioethanol from biomass, plantations of fast-growing plants (willow, poplar, etc.) are on demand. Siberia with its huge stock of biomass will be an important but not the primary source of raw materials for such plants due to the lack of infrastructure and necessity of transportation which will significantly raise the cost of production. The expediency of mass production of biofuel is a matter of argument, experts believe. And representatives of public organizations warn about several negative effects emerging in the result of biofuel production.

Lack of food resources. FAO experts claim the growth of production of biofuel from food crops is one of the main factors that lead to higher prices for agricultural commodities and food shortages.  

Deforestation. The growing demand for biomass is becoming one of the main causes of deforestation and seizure of the territories of indigenous peoples and local communities in the interest of getting raw materials. Natural forests are replaced by monocultures, such as oil palms, sugar cane, etc., representatives of the Global Forest Coalition (GFC) claim. The forest network calls for a moratorium on all forms of large-scale bioenergy production.

Soil depletion. Oil-producing crops traditionally used for the production of biofuels, such as rape or sunflower, are very "aggressive" for the soil. Since the production of fuel requires large amounts of raw materials, people use different methods to accelerate growth, apply fertilizers.  This leads to pollution of fresh water sources and depletion of soils by energy crops.

Inefficiency of biofuel use. The use of bioethanol produces less energy than is spent on its production. That means that for obtaining a sufficient amount of feedstock for combustion at a power plant, a large amount of biomass is needed.  As the “Friends of Earth” state in their Position, other life cycle costs add to the inefficiency; these are emissions from fertilizer production, collection, drying, and transportation. In addition, incineration is not the most environmentally clean process.   

GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Representatives of the Alliance for Biosafety of the CIS countries argue against the use of transgenic crops (obtained using genetic technologies) as raw materials for biofuels, as this leads to the spread of genetic and chemical pollution, expansion of monocultures, reduction of varietal diversity, disappearance of traditional indigenous species. Creation of special "energy" GM plants based on food crops will lead to contamination of the seed fund and the environment as a whole; environmental activists are sure of that. 

In the opinion of representatives of public environmental organizations, bioenergy can play a positive role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, for the practical introduction of certain bioenergy technologies, it is necessary to assess all the details and minimize the impact on the environment and social sphere of all processes engaged at the stage of obtaining raw materials and at the stages of production and use of biofuels.