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Omnipresent energy: Tapping into Europe's biomass potential

Biomass is one of the oldest and most prevalent energy sources on the planet. Often considered merely refuse, biomass materials such as dead trees, wood chips, sawdust, and agricultural and industrial waste can be burned to create energy and provide heat and electricity.

With patent application trends indicating a relative maturity of biomass technology, the market looks set to grow in coming years. Not least because the political impetus for biomass as a viable energy option exists: The EU highlighted the importance of the use of biomass in achieving its goal of satisfying 20 percent of European energy needs through renewable resources by 2020. Amid this increased awareness of the detrimental effects of fossil fuels and an effort to limit dependence on gas and oil as energy sources, biomass is emerging as a promising source of energy.

Currently around 5 percent of final energy consumption in the EU is from bio-energy sources, such as biomass, but projections in the EU's 2007 Renewable Energy Road Map suggested that the use of biomass as an energy source could be expected to double in the next decade. The European Commission also expected that this would lead to direct employment of up to 250 000 to 300 000 persons in Europe, mostly in rural areas.

Overcoming hurdles

Biomass in this context can be considered a promising and underdeveloped source of energy. Nevertheless, there have been a number of factors preventing biomass taking off as a viable renewable energy source.

These include differing national policies regarding the support of renewables, budgetary constraints, general reservation regarding new technology, a lack of a biomass supply and the variable price of oil. On the technical side, the efficiency of the energy conversion and the types of fuels that can be used have also halted the rise of this technology.

Despite the variety of factors slowing the adoption of biomass as major energy source, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects that the biomass share in electricity production could expand significantly. The projections suggest, based on various assumptions, that the share could increase from currently around 1.3% to 3%, to possibly 5%, by 2050.

Taking biomass technology to the next level

A promising invention in this field is a new patented technology developed by Danish European Inventor Award nominee Jens Dall Bentzen. Bentzen's invention takes a large step towards solving many of the technical issues plaguing the technology. It allows for the design of much more efficient, effective and environment-friendly biomass power plants. He has developed an improved furnace for burning the biomass, an improved system of energy recovery, as well as enhanced air moisturizers and improved filtration.

In addition, Bentzen's furnace has no moving parts, which lowers the maintenance requirement and increases the lifespan. It offers higher flexibility in terms of fuels that can be used and makes it possible for plant operators to feed the installation with both wet biomass and dry biomass at the same time - something that was previously not possible. Furthermore, the load of the plant can be regulated from 10% output to 100% output, which is an advantage when it comes to meeting different demand for heat during summer and winter.

The advantages of Bentzen's biomass furnace are currently visible at a pilot plant in Bogense, a small town located in the northwest of the Island Funen in Denmark. The local Bogense District Heating Company had previously used a gas system to provide the heat for around 6 000 inhabitants. After studying the results of a 2 MW pilot plant, Bogensee decided to install the technology designed by Dall Energy. The 8 MW biomass plant is already running and will officially be commissioned in May 2011.

"I would call it a very green technology, because we use renewable fuels. We don't use reserves we have in terms of coal, oil and gas, but we use fuel that we grow every year. Also, we don't pollute the air with dust and other emissions," Bentzen said.

A market ready to take off

While biomass combustion will not solve all our energy problems by itself, it offers many advantages that make it an important part of a mixed renewable-energy approach, not least in the savings it offers: Bentzen's invention leads to 20% to 25% higher energy efficiency, to 20% to 30% cheaper fuel (due to the mixture of wet and dry fuels that can be used), to reduced fuel consumption, to 10% savings for the construction of the plant and 20% to 50% savings on maintenance. This results in savings of 27% per year for an average plant, compared to standard designs.

Bentzen's company, Dall Energy's technology addresses two main markets: district heating and power generation -, and has also the potential for success in a third market, the combined heating and power (CHP) market. The technology focuses on municipalities or industrial firms who have a need for local power generation (project size range: around € 1 million to € 3 million per plant). These plants are therefore ideally suited for those towns and villages which strive to become more energy-independent.

Similar analyses carried out for other countries estimate the market size in Europe to be around 275 plants per year. Significant demand is expected from Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden and Hungary. Assuming an average project size of € 1.33 million, the total European market value can be estimated at € 367 million per year.