Wetenschap - 10 oktober 2002

Experts gather to discuss green energy for the future

Experts gather to discuss green energy for the future

Brussels wants to see 12 percent of Europe's energy coming from renewable sources by 2010. At the moment only 6 percent comes from renewable sources. Dutch experts met at the Wageningen International Congress Centre (WICC) in September to discuss the problem and agreed that extracting energy and raw materials from biomass is the way forward.

One of the nineteen representatives of Wageningen UR present at the WICC was Dr Wolter Elbersen, coordinator of the Bio-energy and Biomass Processing Programme at the Agrotechnological Institute, ATO. "The Netherlands produces 12 tons of biomass per hectare each year. If you also consider the huge flows of waste products from the agricultural and food industries, it's immediately obvious that there is a future for extracting raw materials such as hydrogen from biomass. Along the roads in the Netherlands lie bales of mown grass just rotting away, our households produce kilograms of organic waste, agriculture has a manure surplus and stricter safety legislation has resulted in increasing amounts of animal waste. Non-food applications spring to mind quickly."

Nevertheless it is already clear that a large amount of the biomass that would be needed will have to come from abroad. How to go about importing biomass and under what conditions formed the main topics at the workshop.

The meeting at the WICC is part of the Transition Project on Sustainable Energy. "Transition projects are new policy instruments," explains Elbersen. "This project comes from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, but other ministries have transition projects as well. The Ministry of Agriculture is currently promoting an Transition Project for Sustainable Agriculture." Transition projects are intended to introduce changes that are advantageous to society as a whole, but that will take a long time to implement. "Changes like this cannot just be imposed by the government. They require broad public support," explains Elbersen. "That is why the government, businesses, environmental organisations and knowledge institutions have come together to agree targets together and to reach accords on what they can do individually to achieve the targets."

Cooperation is a keyword in the Transition Project for Sustainable Energy. By getting parties from the entire chain to work together it should be possible to generate half of the renewable energy in the Netherlands from biomass by 2020. Those present at the meeting were all in agreement on this. "A certain amount of biomass produced by this country is used as fuel in electricity power plants," says Elbersen. "But you can also use the biomass to extract hydrogen, ethanol or biodiesel. These products can be used not only as fuel, but also as raw materials for the chemical industry."

The extent to which the targets can be achieved also depends on the speed with which new technology is developed. "Researchers all over the world are working on processes to convert wood fibre into sugars. Once that is possible the price of industrial sugars should decrease by a factor of three. These sugars in turn can be used to make cheap bio-alcohol and chemical raw materials. A breakthrough like that would make our work much easier."

The next meeting will be held on 25 October in the WICC. The subject to be discussed is technological, logistical and economic opportunities for the use of biomass.

Willem Koert

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