Will the Netherlands be importing biomass from the Ukraine sometime soon? Quite possibly. The Eastern European country has discovered biomass; primarily as an alternative to expensive natural gas from Russia, but perhaps also later as an export product. The Pellets for Power research project has clearly stimulated interest among the Ukrainians.
From 2011 to 2013 Wageningen UR (Food & Biobased Research and Alterra) carried out research into three types of biomass (straw, reed and the biomass crop switchgrass) in the Ukraine. The scientists wanted to know whether they could be used to produce economically profitable and sustainable fuel pellets. The project was realised in close cooperation with three companies in the biomass chain: Control Union (the Netherlands), Phytofuels (the Ukraine) and Tuzetka (Belgium). The Ukrainian Poltava State Agrarian Academy acted as knowledge partner.
Sustainable import is necessary
NL Agency partly financed the project on behalf of the Dutch government as Kees Kwant, Biobased Economy programme consultant at NL Agency, explains: “The Netherlands has too little biomass to achieve its sustainability goals so we need to import. We are currently bringing wood pellets over from Canada and the US. The goal of this project has been to find out whether we could also produce pellets from other crops using sustainable processes. What made Pellets for Power even more interesting is that the project took place in a country with such a large biomass potential.”
Reed is interesting
This potential is found, among other places, in the 1.2 million hectares of marshlands on which copious amount of reed grow. And this reed has interesting possibilities, as was shown by the Pellets for Power project. “Tests show that the quality of the reed is sufficient to process it into pellets,” says Wolter Elbersen, project leader at Food & Biobased Research. “It is technically possible and we also looked into whether it was possible in a sustainable way. The answer to this question was also affirmative.”
“The reeds are currently being incinerated to facilitate hunters and fishermen,” adds Elbersen’s colleague Ronald Poppens. “But harvesting will result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The tricky part is that the marshlands are so ecologically vulnerable. Harvesting needs to be performed with great care; for instance when there is a large layer of ice, by maintaining a buffer zone along the water’s edge, or by harvesting in a zigzag pattern to protect insect populations.”
So reed offers opportunities – and the same applies to switchgrass. This American prairie grass has excellent properties as a cheap biomass crop, which is interesting to Ukrainian growers. “The Ukraine has many hectares of extremely fertile agricultural land, but there is also lots of unused land with less favourable soil conditions,” Elbersen continues. “We have shown that switchgrass also does well on these marginal soils. This does result in a dilemma, however, as it slightly increases the cost price. Moreover, the greenhouse gas balance produced per unit is also somewhat less favourable.”
On the other hand there is a positive side effect in that there is no indirect land use change (iLUC). Elbersen: “Just as with the production of reed, switchgrass production does not affect agricultural land for food production.”
The question remains, however, as to whether a successful business case can be made for Ukrainian biomass. Yes, says Ronald Poppens: “It’s worth noting that doing business in the Ukraine can be difficult. It’s hard to establish a successful production chain for straw, partly due to contractual uncertainties. But with reed the opportunities are more positive. During the project we studied exactly who legally owned the reed and it turned out to be the villages. Based on partnership agreements with local farmers and businesses, our project partner Phytofuels has already acquired licenses to sustainably harvest some 9,000 hectares of reed. We expect the production of switchgrass for biomass to follow shortly.”
Alternative to Russian natural gas
A breakthrough in the biomass sector could be very good news indeed for the largely poor country, predicts Poppens. “The Ukraine currently relies on expensive natural gas from Russia for its energy supply. Biomass may develop into an affordable alternative. And should producers be successful in further enhancing the quality and costs per unit, importing biomass from the Ukraine would also be interesting to the Netherlands.”
Kees Kwant at NL Agency is keen to see this happen: “It’s not only that we would be able to use the biomass as pellets to supply energy. In the long term it could also be a source for the production of biobased materials and chemicals.”