Published on September 27th, 2012 | by Amy Brown0
The heat of the forest
In a country as richly endowed with forest as Finland, it’s no wonder that the country has become the world leader in large-scale forest biomass energy. In the pursuit of cleaner energy for more sustainable living, countries in Europe and worldwide are tapping into Finland’s expertise.
Finland is Europe’s most heavily forested country, covering 23 million hectares or 74.2 percent of the land area. The abundant forests keep Finnish residents nice and warm, thanks to a strong forest sector that has been using wood-based residues (bark, sawdust, black liquor) in its energy generation for decades.
Finland is the global technology leader in large-scale biomass plant technology, which mostly takes the form of fluidized bed boilers able to digest a variety of biofuels ranging from primary forest biomass to solid biowaste and agricultural byproducts. Annual sales of forest biomass-based energy in Finland is eur 3 billion, producing 75-80 TWh of energy.
The success of the bioenergy industry in Finland is closely tied to the tradition of heat distribution based on district heat systems, also known as chp (Combined Heat and Power), which enables efficient and centralized energy production in large units—over 100 MW units. Finland is the world market leader in large chp biomass plants and also in wood harvesting machinery. This expertise has been in high demand not only in the European Union but worldwide, too. In Finland, half of the heating demand is covered by district heating.
THE COOPERATIVE MODEL
According to Professor Antti Asikainen who specializes in Forest Bioenergy & Forest Technology with the Finnish Forest Research Institute, cooperative district heating models are very common in small municipal units (1–5 MW). In 2010, about 200 heating entrepreneurs are supplying heat to almost 500 locations.
“A group of cooperative members run the heating plant and also deliver fuel to the plant. They are often farmers, also referred to as heating entrepreneurs, that also own forest so that raw material supply is well secured,” he explains.
Bioenergy is a necessity in Finland, which lacks its own fossil fuel resources (other than slowly renewable peat reserves). Use of bioenergy has helped the country in its ambition to reduce its carbon footprint. This will help it reach its goal of increasing its share of renewables in the energy supply from 28 percent to 38 percent by 2020, about equal to 124 TWh. About 80 percent of the Finnish renewable energy comes from bioenergy.
“Particularly the use of primary forest residues has increased rapidly. Today these produce 15 TWh of energy annually; ten years ago that number was only 1-2 TWh,” says Professor Asikainen. “This means we have replaced about 10-12 TWh of oil and other fossil fuels with forest biomass.”
BOON ON THE ECONOMY
Bioenergy has been good for Finland’s economy, too. According to Professor Asikainen, the bioenergy-related sme sector’s annual turnover is about eur 800 million, and employs about 4,000 to 5,000 people. In addition, the supply of woody biomass (primary forest biomass such as logging residues, stumpwood, wood from precommercial harvest) employs 2,000 to 3,000 annually.
The Finnish government strongly supports the industry, directing millions of euros to bioenergy research in the past decade. The country’s CO2-based taxation for many years, which benefits bioenergy, has also helped build the industry’s success and keep electricity prices among the lowest in Europe.
With the heat of the bioenergy industry quickly rising, Finland isn’t about to slow down. The country has become particularly proficient in managing the entire logistics chain in producing bioenergy, from the forest to the end user.
Metso Power, a Finnish company, has built new Lahti Energy gasification heat and power plant in Lahti, Finland, with new technology supporting high efficiency power generation from waste and designed to meet current and future regulations. Scheduled to start up in 2012, the plant will help to cut the use of fossil fuels considerably.
Forest Wheeler, a US-based company which developed its chp technology in Finland, is another leader in biomass gasification, using biofuels to cut carbon emissions from existing coal plants in Lahti, and producing carbon-neutral fuel for the transportation sector in Varkaus, Finland.
BIOECONOMY NEXT FRONTIER
“Bioenergy is evolving so that we will use more wood-based raw materials to produce biofuels and synthetic natural gas,” says Juha Vanhanen, managing director of Finnish consultancy Gaia Group and an expert on the renewable energy sector.
Second-generation biofuel plants will be constructed in the next five to 10 years. Conventional heat and power production will almost double the use of primary forest residues by 2020, from 15 TWh to about 25 TWh.
“We are going through a metamorphosis into a bioeconomy in which we are developing the use of biomass not only for the production of fuel but also for the production of chemicals, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals,” says Vanhanen. “We recognize that energy is one option for our biomass but not the only one. And that presents a very exciting frontier.”
The majority of Finland’s renewable energy is produced from forest-derived biomass. Approximately 60 percent of renewable energy is produced in the pulp production and bark combustion in the forest industry.