Advantage – ecosystem and socio-economic aspects


The issue of renewable biomass and its sustainable utilisation marks a central position in current climate protection policy. In addition to conducting general research on the potential effects on the climate, the renowned Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) has carried out complementary literature studies concerning the existing biomass potentials. PIK has also provided additional estimations on the production rate of biomass in Germany, Europe and worldwide.  


Simulations with the combined macroeconomic energy system model ReMIND-genEris at PIK have shown that in the area of renewable energies, in addition to photovoltaics, biomass energy sources will make a substantial contribution to a cost-optimised energy mix. These studies will, within the scope of the project, amplify the different and particularly suitable substrates for HTC. The essential parameters are the availability of surfaces as well as the possible development of energy vectors per unit area, which is also incorporated for the close examination of the biogenic residual materials.


The use of biomass as a fuel as well as energy source (for electricity, heat) will make a fundamental contribution towards achieving the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the utilisation of the existing and potentially increasing biomass potential can lead to adverse socio-economic as well as climate and environment related effects under certain circumstances. A striking example would be the current discussion on biofuels of the first generation, which has upset the climate balance through incentives for cutting down rain forests (e.g. palm oil), competition over food production (e.g. corn) and the use of plants with high water and fertilizer demand (e.g. canola). Therefore, compliance with the sustainability principle is just as important as the consideration of socioeconomic effects associated with biomass usage for energy on large industrial scale. A technology such as HTC, which allows for usage of a broad spectrum of different biomass types, can offer a pivotal contribution to ecological and socioeconomic sustainability as well as biodiversity.


The large-scale estimations of changes in carbon allowances comprise necessarily the examination of the carbon balance in the groud. With adequate soil consistency, the HTC process could withdraw the bulk of the carbon contained in the biomass and store it long-term in the SunCoal, an approach similar to the idea of carbon sequestration. Composting or rotting of the raw biomass will on the other hand release the majority of the carbon as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.  Merely ca. 0.5% of the carbon will be bonded in the form of marketable topsoil. By storing a carbon-enriched, oxygen-depleted product such as SunCoal, a decrease in carbon emissions could be achieved because the carbon being withdrawn from the CO2-neutral biomass is part of the carbon cycle. In such a scenario, the application of SunCoal as carbon storage would then allow the SunCoal to be placed into the ground.  At present this application expects to have a positive influence on soil biology as well as reservoir capacity. From this it also follows that a diminished demand for fertilizers would result.


Based on the finding of known specific case studies, a comprehensive evaluation can be conducted on the ecological consequences and influence of large-scale application of the HTC-process on the overall energy mix.  The focus here lies on changes in the global carbon cycle, water supply as well as nutritional balance. A further advantageous side effect of the contribution of SunCoal from biomass is the inclusion of phosphorus in the coal. While limited on earth, this available but essential base material in fertilizers is found embedded in plant cells and could be returned to the natural cycle.


The promotion of bioenergy is supported by current legislation in Germany, Europe and also in other countries to comply with certain criteria for sustainability.  In the scope of this project, the existing state of knowledge on bioenergy systems will be enhanced through a holistic examination of the positive as well as negative effects of biomass utilisation by HTC at the local, regional, national and international levels.