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Biomass, a resource to reduce energetic dependence

Against the dramatic backdrop of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, we must not lose sight of the strategy to decarbonise Europe. At the invitation of the FREE (Renewable Sources and Energy Efficiency) Coordination, a group of experts met to discuss the italian energy model

by Matteo Monni
May - June 2022 | Back

The energy crisis triggered by the conflict in Ukraine has led to an immediate spike in energy prices, which could become even more acute as a result of Brussels' embargo on Russian oil. These dynamics - together with the much more risky ones of global warming (you can't negotiate with the climate!) - confirm the need, which can no longer be postponed, to exploit the contribution of innovative sources in general and of bioenergy in particular with a view to greater diversification of supplies, combating high energy prices, promoting local development and energy transition in the wake of the new National Forestry Strategy.

Starting from these premises, the FREE (Renewable Sources and Energy Efficiency) Coordination in collaboration with AIEL, Elettricità Futura, ITABIA and Crea (Council for Research in Agriculture and Analysis of Agricultural Economics) organised a debate among experts on the goals of modern bioenergy to decarbonise the economy and reduce Italy's energy dependence. First of all, Livio de Santoli, President of the FREE Coordination underlined the unquestionable role that should be recognised for biomass in the path to be faced for the energy transition. According to realistic estimates, biomass energy exploitation can replace as much as 8 billion cubic metres per year of natural gas. In addition, the effect that bioenergy can generate on the reduction of utility bills, both in the domestic and industrial sector, should not be overlooked. A saving of around 40 per cent in energy costs for users (households and businesses) is certainly a strong point for tackling two exponentially growing phenomena: the climate emergency and energy poverty.

The numbers of the wood/energy chain - brought up for discussion to reinforce the various points of view - clearly describe the centrality of the biomass resource, which is the first renewable source in Europe and Italy. In fact, in Italy, out of about 120 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent) of final energy consumption, 8.9 per cent is attributable to biomass, while all other RES stand at 9.3 per cent. In this picture, unfortunately, fossil fuels still dominate the scenario, contributing just under 82 % to the energy mix. On the socio-economic level, it should be noted that there are about 14,000 companies involved in the 'from the forest to the chimney' chain, with a total turnover of over 4 billion euros; more than 72,000 are employed in the sector, of which 43,000 are direct and 29,000 linked to allied industries. Another very interesting aspect lies in the fact that the employment impact of woody biofuel production is 7 times higher than that of oil production. Finally, 25% of households use woody biomass for heating, the annual consumption of firewood exceeds 12 million tonnes followed by pellets with over 3.2 million tonnes and finally 1.4 million tonnes of wood chips.

A further insight into the contribution of the biomass supply chain to the energy crisis was provided by Annalisa Paniz, Director General of AIEL, who recalled the importance of a systemic and integrated approach in considering the forest/wood supply chain as a whole to ensure a 'wood-based' economy, based on an efficient and circular use of resources thanks to the cascading use of wood resources. In this regard, the accounts of the environmental benefits of using biomass in construction were very interesting. For example, a wooden house - in addition to using renewable raw materials and storing CO2 (around 40 tonnes) - can be heated for 70 years by fuelling a boiler with only the wood waste generated by the production of the materials for its construction. On a purely energy-related level, with woody resources it is possible to aim for a target of 16.5 Mtoe of thermal energy produced from bioenergy, as opposed to the current 7 Mtoe, of which 8.5 Mtoe is from woody biomass, equal to about 146 GW of installed power. This confirms the forecast that potentially with bioenergy it is possible to replace more than 9 billion m3 of methane gas, i.e. 4 million boilers from fossil fuels for domestic use, covering up to 68% of energy from RES in the thermal sector and up to 37% of final thermal consumption. Such measures would significantly reduce energy costs for families: with current prices, using firewood or pellets to heat a house allows annualy an average saving compared to methane of over €900 (-55%) and over €700 (-44%) respectively.

Elettricità Futura's point of view was provided by General Manager Andrea Zaghi, who emphasised the particular importance of the contribution of bioenergy, especially in this phase of the gas crisis in which the Italy needs alternatives to free itself from its dependence on Russia. It should be noted that Elettricità Futura represents 70% of the Italian electricity market, bringing together over 500 companies active in the production and marketing of electricity from conventional and renewable sources. Recently, this association, a member of Confindustria, drew up the Manifesto of Bioenergy in Italy, an initiative in which the entire solid biomass, bioliquids, biogas and biomethane sector (including ITABIA) took part. According to Zaghi, bioenergy, thanks to its absolute programmability and contribution to energy production, has advantages that are entirely comparable to those achieved by the most modern conventional power plants, but using renewable and local resources. For these reasons, when the PNIEC (Piano Nazionale Integrato Energia e Clima - National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan) is being updated, the contribution of biomasses will have to be considerably strengthened by providing investors with a certain regulatory framework and support for technological innovation.

According to Vito Pignatelli, president of ITABIA Italian Biomass Association, the success of bioenergy lies in the fact that it is based on efficient raw materials and technologies capable of providing electricity, heat and biofuels for transport in a continuous and programmable manner. Furthermore, it has great potential for replacing fossil fuels, starting with methane, even in the baseload to meet energy demands throughout the day and year. For these reasons, bioenergy is, among renewable sources, the one that contributes most (9-10% of the total) to Italy's energy consumption. Furthermore, bioenergy is the renewable source most closely linked to the territory, presenting a whole series of positive repercussions in areas ranging from the proper management of forest resources to the multifunctionality of agriculture, to the sustainable development and resilience of the productive fabric of rural and mountain areas at risk of depopulation and abandonment.

Despite these benefits, the importance of bioenergy is too often underestimated, and even within the NRRP, with the sole exception of its contribution to the decarbonisation of transport in the form of biomethane and advanced biofuels, the growth forecasts for this renewable source are far lower than its actual potential. Therefore, a strong commitment is needed from everyone, and first and foremost from the Associations representing the sector's operators and potential beneficiaries. This in order to arrive at correct and widespread information and convince political decision-makers to put in place a series of positive actions that will allow biomass energy production to be 'freed' from the excessive constraints and obstacles still present and to fully exploit its great potential.

In this regard, Pignatelli thought it would be useful to point out a recent initiative that came out of a good policy practice conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Last April, the Association for Eco-Sustainable Land Management in Abruzzo called GESTA was established. The initiative, promoted and financed within the framework of a specific call for proposals by MiPAAF (within the 2014-2020 Development and Cohesion Fund), aims to create a network of professionals, local authorities and administrations to activate actions to enhance rural resources (forests and agriculture) and develop territorial supply chains related to the circular bioeconomy.

The area covered by the initiative involves an area that includes the provinces of L'Aquila and Teramo, covering more than 14,000 hectares, of which about 11,600 are woods and 2,400 pastures, many of which have been recolonised by spontaneous woodland. Wanting to give space also to a correct energetic exploitation of the biomasses of this territory, particular attention will be given to defining efficient criteria for the mobilisation of the wood product. This requires mechanisation, techniques and specific knowledge that will lay the foundations for the start of a process of 'certification' of the forest-wood supply chain, which also takes into account the sustainability of the wood fuel production process. What Pignatelli said is perfectly in line with the closing speech of the webinar held by CREA's Sonia Marongiu, which focused on the new National Forestry Strategy (SFN). Transposing the priorities established at the EU level, it defines the strategic framework to support the competent national and regional administrations. This document is valid for 20 years and will be accompanied by a monitoring and evaluation process for a five-year update. Thanks to the new SFN, a fundamental basis is thus structured for constructive debates to mediate between social and political interests in the protection and conservation of the forest heritage. This basis will have to bear in mind the need to restore "value to the forest" in consideration of the innumerable ecosystem services associated with it.


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