Monthly Archives: April 2016

The constrained role of biomass

The role of biomass in the world energy system looks likely to be constrained, so there will be a need to focus on high value applications where there are few low-carbon alternatives.

This is the second of two posts looking at the role of biomass.  Here I focus on potential resource constraints.

A wide range of possibilities

The amount of biomass available to provide energy depends a lot on the amount of land available to grow energy crops, and how much that land can yield.   Different assumptions on these variables produce quite different estimates of the total resource, and numerous studies over the years have produced a wide range of results.    The amount of waste biomass available also matters, but potential availability from this source is smaller.

A comprehensive review of estimates of the biomass resource was carried out two years ago by researchers at Imperial College[i] (see chart).  It showed a variation in estimates of a factor of around 40, from of the order of 30 EJ to over 1000 EJ (1EJ =1018 J, or a billion GJ, or 278 TWh).  This compares with total world primary energy demand of just under 600 EJ, transport demand of around 100 EJ, and at least 250 EJ to produce present levels of electricity, assuming biomass combustion to remain relatively inefficient[ii].

Estimates of available biomass resource

biomass chart processed

Source: Slade et. al. (2014)

The authors examine reasons for differences in estimates, which I’ve summarised in the table below.  The differences are largely assumption driven, because the small scale of commercial bioenergy at present provides little empirical evidence about the potential for very large scale bioenergy, and future developments in food demand and other factors are inevitably uncertain.

Reasons for variation in estimates of total biomass supply

Range Typical assumptions
Up to 100EJ Limited land available for energy crops, high demand for food, limited productivity gains in food production, and existing trends for meat consumption.  Some degraded or abandoned land is available.
100-300 EJ Increasing crop yields keep pace with population growth and food demand, some good quality agricultural land is made available for energy crop production, along with 100-500Mha of grassland, marginal, degraded and deforested land
300-600EJ Optimistic assumptions on energy crop availability, agricultural productivity outpaces demand, and vegetarian diet
600 EJ + Regarded as extreme scenarios to test limits of theoretical availability


Reasons for caution

In practice there seem to me to be grounds for caution about the scale of the available resource, although all of these propositions require testing, including through implementation of early projects.

Land Availability

  • There will rightly be emphasis on protection of primary forest on both carbon management and biodiversity grounds, with some reforestation and rewilding.
  • There is little evidence of a shift away from meat consumption. With the exception of India, less than 10% of people in  most countries are vegetarian despite many years of campaigning on various grounds[iii].   In China meat consumption is associated with rising living standards.
  • Demand for land for solar PV will be significant, although a good deal of this will be on rooftops and in deserts


  • The nitrogen cycle is already beyond its limit, constraining the role of fertiliser, and water stress is a serious issue in many places (agriculture accounts for 70% of current fresh water use). The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has projected fairly modest increases in future yields.

Policy support

  • Difficulties in limiting lifecycle emissions from biofuels are likely to lead to caution about widespread deployment.
  • Concerns about food security may limit growth of biofuels.

Small scale to date, despite many years of interest

  • There has been little progress to date compared with other low carbon technologies. Though traditional biofuels remain widely used, modern biofuels account for a very small proportion of demand at present.  World biofuels consumption currently accounts for only 0.2% of world oil consumption[iv] .  Many biofuels programmes have had subsidies cut and there is still limited private sector investment.

In this context some estimates of the potential for biomass to contribute to energy supply seem optimistic.  For example, Shell’s long-term scenarios (Oceans and Mountains) show biomass of 74 EJ and 87 EJ respectively for commercial biomass, 97-133 EJ including traditional biomass by 2060[v].  These totals are towards or above the more cautious estimates for the resource that might ultimately be available (see table above).  A recent review article[vi]  suggested that by 2100 up to 3.3 GtCp.a. (around 12 billion tonnes of CO2) could be being removed, and producing around 170EJ of energy.  However the land requirements for this are very large at about 10% of current agricultural land.  The authors suggest instead a mean value for biomass potential of about a third of that, or 60EJ.

On balance it seems that biomass is likely to account for at most less than 10% of commercial global energy (likely to be around 800-900EJ by mid-century), and potentially much less if land availability and difficulties with lifecycle emissions prove intractable.

It thus seems likely that biomass energy will be relatively scarce, and so potentially of high value.  This in turn suggests it is likely to be mainly used in applications where other low carbon alternatives are unavailable.  These are not likely to be the same everywhere, but they are likely often to include transport applications, especially aviation and likely heavy trucking, and perhaps to meet seasonal heat demand in northern latitudes.  For example, according to Shell’s scenarios aviation (passengers + freight) is expected to account for perhaps 20-25EJ by 2050, and biomass could likely make a useful contribution to decarbonisation in this sector.

None of this implies that biomass is unimportant, or has no role to play.  It does imply that policies focussing on deploying other renewable energy sources at large scale, including production of low carbon electricity for transport, will be essential to meeting decarbonisation targets.  And the optimum use of biomass will require careful monitoring and management.

Adam Whitmore  – 11th April 2016


[i] Slade, Global Bioenergy Resources, Nature Climate Change February 2014

[ii] Data on final consumption and electricity production from Shell and IEA data.  35% efficiency for biomass in electricity is assumed, which is likely to be somewhat optimistic, especially if CCS is employed.


[iv] BP Statistical Review of World Energy

[v]  These totals include biofuels, gasified biomass and biomass waste solids, and traditional biomass.

[vi] Smith et. al., Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions, Nature Climate Change, January 2016.  The paper estimates land requirement for 170 EJ of 380-700 Mha, around 10% of total agricultural land area in 2000 of 4960Mha.