Prospects for Energy Crops in the Netherlands

by E van den Heuvel, Novem


In the Netherlands, energy crops seem to have a low priority ranking as renewable energy sources compared to wood residues and imported wood. The current high investment costs of biomass conversion technologies mean that high biomass purchase costs cannot be supported. As the Netherlands is a densely populated country, land prices are high and the agricultural sector is in search of high value alternative crops. Should we therefore forget about energy crops and concentrate on other biomass sources for energy and for other crops to 'boost' the agricultural economy? In the short term maybe, but in the longer term, the answer is 'no'.


Biomass is a 'difficult' renewable energy resource. Solar and wind energy are recognised by the public as clean renewable energy resources and they are common property. Biomass is, in almost all cases, private or utility property. If not controlled carefully, a biomass resource can be depleted if annual regrowth is less than the annual use.


Biomass is mostly heterogeneous and is not easy to quantify in single dimensions like radiation/m2 or wind speed. PV-cells and wind turbines do not emit CO2 to the atmosphere during energy generation. Biomass does, and it is difficult to explain to the public why biomass nevertheless reduces the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere during the complete life cycle.

Biomass does have clear advantages, however. Storage of wind and solar energy for long periods is rather difficult, but storage and handling of biomass is possible. In fact, biomass is captured solar energy. Using today's technologies, electricity from biomass is much cheaper than electricity from PV systems. Biomass energy conversion is related to gas and coal based conversion and, for the commonly regarded capacity, it can be commercialised in a shorter time span.


For these reasons, biomass and waste do play a major role in the targets for sustainable energy in the Netherlands. Sustainable energy sources now contribute 1% to the total energy production. This contribution should rise to 10% in 2020. Almost 60% of this is predicted to originate from biomass and waste.


This amounts to 120 PJ; 45 PJ from waste and 75 PJ from clean biomass. About 4 million tonnes of biomass will be needed, far more than is available in the Netherlands. Four million tonnes corresponds to 400,000 ha of agricultural land at 10 tonnes/ha/yr or half that agricultural area plus all forestry thinnings. Utilisation of indigenous wood waste and import of other biomass will therefore be necessary in the start-up phases, when biomass conversion technologies will be implemented and developed. Utilisation of energy crops is scheduled for the longer term. By that time, investment costs will have reduced and the cost price of conventional energy increased. However, in order to implement energy crops when the time comes, measures should be taken now to enable its market introduction.


Energy crops do have the advantage over wood waste and imported wood, that the supply of material can be more easily planned and better guaranteed. For example, the availability of industrial wood waste can decrease if industrial production processes are further optimised, if the market for chipboard grows or if substitution of plastic products continues. The import of wood from other countries is not yet fully underway and it will be some time before an international biomass trade market is established. Because energy crops are products in their own right, not by-products of other industries, both the quantity (yield) and the quality of the material can be optimised by agricultural practice.


Whether or not energy crops can contribute to a sustainable energy-based economy lies in various hands. Agricultural and energy experts have to convince policy makers of the potential of energy crops in terms of yields, production costs and environmental gains. Policy makers in turn must decide whether, for a limited time, a structural subsidy should be provided to enable technological and agricultural breakthroughs.


The Dutch national programme on energy from biomass focuses on developing clean and efficient technologies for converting biomass into energy. In co-operation with market parties, projects are formulated to identify the waste and residue streams available for energy conversion, to solve the logistical problems and to develop the most appropriate technology.

The waste streams involved vary from municipal solid waste, landfill and contaminated wood to residues from forestry, straw etc. The relevant technologies are direct combustion on a scale of up to 20 MWth, and 10% co-combustion with powder coal to generate electricity on a scale of 600 MWe. For organic waste streams, anaerobic digestion is being developed and implemented on various scales.

A national biomass gasification programme is being set up with industry and research institutes. The establishment of a pilot project for the circulating fluidised bed gasification of biomass will enable experiments to be conducted with different forms of biomass and their technical application.

With regard to energy crops, a study conducted by the Biomass Center for the Netherlands at Novem concluded that biomass gasification and conversion into electricity will be more attractive, both economically and ecologically, than conversion into transport fuels such as bio-ethanol. Research on energy crops is being carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture.

For more information contact the CADDET Dutch National Team in Sittard.


Specially developed equipment is used for biomass harvesting

The CADDET Renewable Energy Newsletter is a quarterly magazine published by the CADDET Centre for Renewable Energy at ETSU, UK.

The articles published in the Newsletter reflect the opinions of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the official view of CADDET.

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