Sustainably Sourced Biomass 101

December 27, 2023

We live and breathe our mission of restoring the balance of carbon on earth. In search of the most pragmatic, ready to scale, high durability solution, we chose to focus on preserving biomass in deep, anoxic water basins, such as the Black Sea. To make this work at scale, we are going to need A LOT of biomass. A gigaton (a billion metric tonnes) worth of biomass is roughly equivalent to the global corn industry, which grows a whopping 1.2 gigatons yearly. We are often asked how much biomass is out there, and how much of it can be sustainably sourced. This post will shed some light on biomass and what it means to sustainably source it.

Wait, What is Biomass?

Broadly speaking, biomass is the total mass of a defined group of living organisms. A scientific paper quantified the biomass of all living organisms, as shown below. 

Bar-On, Phillips, Milo. “The Biomass Distribution on Earth” 2018.

The total global biomass contains approximately 550 gigatons of carbon. Of that, plants make up the majority, at 450 Gt C, while microbes come in second at 85 Gt C and animals make up 2 Gt C, of which 1 Gt C is bugs (arthropods). Humans are only 0.06 Gt C, but we grow 0.1 Gt C of livestock, and if you look closely you’ll notice our stark effect on wild mammals: reduced to 0.007 Gt C.

For Rewind’s purposes, biomass is also defined as renewable organic material, generally from plants and animals, that contains chemical building blocks of carbon and hydrogen vital to modern energy. This type of biomass is usually residual and can be categorized into 4 groups: wood and processing wastes, agriculture crops and waste materials, biogenic materials in municipal solid waste, like food/yard waste, and animal manure and human waste.

The use of residual biomass can significantly contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating job opportunities, and promoting regional development. Each year, 100 gigatons of biomass grow on earth, about half of which is in the ocean while half is on land. Out of the 50 gigatons on land, 16.7 is used for human purposes, such as food, livestock feed, and crops. Half of this 16.17 is ‘consumed’ while the other 8.1 gigatons of biomass are left and can be sustainably harvested each year.

What is Biomass Used For? 

  • 🚛 Transportation (bio)fuel production
  • 🔥 Heating and electricity generation
  • 🌱 Production of (bio)plastic products
  • 🫐 Nutritional supplements
  • 🧼 Detergents and cleaning products

In the EU, biomass is the main source of renewable energy, making up 60% of their renewable energy consumption. Forestry is their main source of biomass for energy (>60%) and the heating and cooling sector accounts for 75% of all bioenergy consumed in the EU.

On the other hand, in the US, biomass energy makes up 45% of renewable energy and 5%, or 350,000,000 tons, of primary energy consumption. The industrial sector, in the US, is the largest consumer of biomass for energy (46% or 160,000,000 tons), followed by the transportation sector (32% or 110,000,000 tons).

Current trends of biomass consumption for energy are highlighting the growing future use of biomass. The demand is particularly expected to stem from emerging economies, such as India, Brazil, and Indonesia; however, it may be difficult for these economies to utilize biomass in a sustainable way. Additionally, the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario sees a rapid increase in the use of bioenergy to displace fossil fuels by 2030. While EU policies continue to promote the use of biomass, the European Environment Agency (EEA) stresses the importance of combining nature protection and carbon sequestration with biomass production in order to ensure its sustainability.  

What is (un)Sustainable Biomass?

Many developed countries are exploiting biomass and not adhering to sustainable practices.

  • Denmark is recognized worldwide for its commitment to renewable energy, SDGs, and offshore wind farms. However, Denmark imports 44% of its biomass from non-EU countries, such as Brazil. Approximately 60,000 tons of wood chips were imported from Brazil's eucalyptus plantations. Many have been involved in illegal land grabbing and deforestation within these plantations, as the plantations were previously covered with flora and fauna species.
  • In the Southeast US, Enviva, a primary supplier to Drax’s UK power plant, has been operating pellet mills for over ten years. Investigations have found that Enviva’s mills routinely source whole trees and other large-diameter woods rather than claimed “residuals” or “waste.” Over a 6-year period, it was found that the area’s deciduous, mixed, and woody wetland forests decreased by 28,000 acres (4,638 acres/year). In 2019, Forest Service data shows that more than 6.6 million green tons of forest were cut for bioenergy or fuelwood in these areas. That’s the equivalent of 71,000 acres of forests cut, with Enviva being a primary user of this wood. This has led to the area’s ecologically valuable hardwood forests experiencing a net loss in forest cover. 
  • Due to the increased global demand for biofuels, croplands are being expanded worldwide for biodiesel production. This is unintentionally causing more carbon emissions because the new croplands required for biofuels come at the expense of natural ecosystems which store carbon in soil and biomass in plants. Thus, emissions from biofuels derived from corn are larger than emissions from regular gasoline, when accounting for the massive land use change.

Guaranteeing Biomass Sustainability

  • Evidence is required of the protection of soil quality and soil carbon and of the raw material of agriculture biomass not being sourced from highly biodiverse forests. For instance, voluntary schemes may be required to report regularly on their activity and can apply for recognition/approval by the Commission under the sustainability framework through an assessment protocol.
  • Bioenergy generators require evidence that the country of origin has laws in place to avoid the risk of unsustainable harvesting and to account for emissions from forest harvesting.
  • New biofuel plants need to deliver at least 65% fewer direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the fossil fuel alternative. New biomass-based heat and power plants need to deliver at least 70% (80% in 2026) fewer GHG emissions than the fossil fuel alternative.
  • To understand what this means, we have to rely on life cycle assessments (LCA) which provide a measure (also) for CO2 emissions per unit. For example, a coal power plant emits 1 kg of CO2 for every 1 kWh of electricity. An equivalent bioenergy power plant will have to emit at most 0.35 kg of CO2 for every 1 kWh of generated electricity.
  • In terms of bioelectricity, large scale plants must apply highly efficient cogeneration technology, or apply Best Available Techniques (BAT) or achieve 36% efficiency (for plants above 100 MW-), or use carbon capture and storage technology (BECCS). This means that bioelectricity power plants should have a capacity power of 36%, meaning they’d be able to generate 36% of electricity energy, out of the whole raw energy of the biomass.

The Carbon Direct Principles
Are practical guidelines for sustainable biomass sourcing in carbon removal efforts. They offer pragmatic guidance for sourcing biomass in carbon dioxide removal contracts, aiming to minimize the risk of negative outcomes.

  • Biomass must come from sources with operational integrity and oversight through strong governance, standards, and supply chain transparency.
  • Biomass must come from sources that minimize negative effects on workers, local communities, and minorities.
  • Biomass must come from sources that don’t threaten protected areas or reduce regional carbon stocks.
  • Biomass must come from sources that don’t distort markets for agriculture or forestry products

Both the EU and Carbon Direct have strong frameworks in place in order to guide companies and ensure they are implementing sustainable best practices. Carbon Direct included environmental justice into their framework which is something that is missing from the EU’s general rules on sustainable biomass. It is really important that the rights of workers, local communities, and minorities are recognized in all aspects, including land rights and fair wages. On the other hand, the EU dove deeper into technical criteria for more specific types of biomass, such as bioelectricity and biofuels. 

Rewind & Sustainable Biomass Sourcing

Sustainable biomass is absolutely critical to us. We believe there is a lot of existing biomass and are committed to utilizing biomass in a transparent, reliable, and equitable way. 

Currently, we are developing technology to verify biomass sustainability. We accomplish this through:

  • 🛰 Satellite imagery to track land use
  • ⚙️ Devices to track supply chain emissions
  • 🔬 Proprietary technology to analyze biomass for chemical properties and traces of unwanted chemicals
  • 📊 Sharing all accountability data with our customers 

We also have plans to partner with companies promoting regenerative agriculture and biodiverse reforestation in order to increase the available biomass in the coming years. Taken as a whole, Rewind is clearly dedicated to sustainable biomass and recognizes the importance of following the above guidelines.

There are two frameworks in place that companies should abide by in order for the biomass they use to be considered sustainably sourced. 

The EU Framework
The recast Renewable Energy Directive 2018/2001/EU aims at keeping the EU a global leader in renewables and meeting its emissions reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement. The sustainability criteria within it cover new criteria for biomass for heat and power, biofuels and bioliquids for transport, agriculture waste and residues, forest biomass, and bioelectricity. 

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