Fact Check: Considerations concerning subsidies for biomass plants


Subsidies for large scale biomass plants are currently under discussion in Flanders. Any decision about subsidies will rest on a number of considerations. In this fact check we discuss the importance of biomass plants in achieving the 2020 targets for renewable energy, their role in the energy system, the properties of large biomass plants and small-scale installations.

By Wouter Wetzels, Pieter Lodewijks, Luc Pelkmans, Leen Govaerts & Ronnie Belmans


The European Renewable Energy Directive sets binding targets for the share of renewable energy by member States in 2020. Belgium is mandated to reach a target of 13% renewable energy. (Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources.)

In 2014 the share of renewable energy in Belgium was 8.0%. On 4 December 2015 the regions and the federal government reached an agreement on a distribution of the target. Flanders made a commitment to reach 2.156 Mtoe of renewable energy in 2020. This involves renewable energy for final consumption and so not just electricity. In this case 1 MWh of green energy is equivalent to 1 MWh of green heat. (Where heat is concerned this means final consumption of renewable energy (such as wood in wood-burning stoves) plus the heat sold from renewable sources. Where transportation is concerned it means the biofuels supplied on the national market. (Renewable energy in the Netherlands 2014, CBS (2015)).)


(Mtoe, TWh and PJ are frequently used energy units. 1 Mtoe = 1 Million tons of oil equivalent = 11.63 TWh. 1 TWh = 3.6 PJ (Petajoules). 1 TWh= 109 kWh.)

fact check biomassacentrale

In 2014 the share of renewable energy in Flanders was 5.7%. A total of 1.31 Mtoe of renewable energy was generated (Table 2). To reach the target of 2.16 Mtoe in 2020, a considerable increase in the generation of renewable energy will be required.


(Inventory of Renewable Energy Resources in Flanders 2005-2014, VITO (2016).)

Fact Check Langerlo

In 2015 the Flemish Energy Agency (VEA) published indicative non-binding sub-targets for green energy (Table 3), based on a several scenarios. In the period 2014-2020, the VEA assumed an increase in electricity from biomass (+0.47 Mtoe, +5.4 TWh), solar photovoltaic (+0.05 Mtoe, +0.6 TWh), onshore wind (+0.08 Mtoe, +1.0 TWh) and biogas (+0.02 Mtoe, +0.2 TWh). (This relates to the differences between the prognosis for 2020 and the prognosis for 2014.)

Two biomass plants are listed, i.e. the BEE Power unit in the port of Ghent, which has a capacity of 215 MW, and the conversion of the Langerlo coal fired plant in Genk to a biomass power plant, which uses wooden pellets for fuel and has a capacity of 519 MW.


(VEA, 2015 – Report 2015/1, Part 3: quota path evaluation, generation targets and market analysis report, VEA (2015)).
The figure may vary when rounded off to 1 decimal point.

Fact Check Biomassa

Importance of biomass plants in achieving the 2020 renewable energy targets

If the decision is made not to subsidise large scale biomass, it is a question of whether there are other types of renewable energy that will be able to accommodate this and whether Flanders will be able to achieve the renewable energy target of 2.156 Mtoe in 2020.

Given the potential for renewables in Flanders this will mainly be additional solar photovoltaic and wind power. We draw a comparison below:

  • The VEA assumes that for the converted coal plant in Langerlo about 2,600,000 green energy certificates would be issued per annum under full load. This equates to 2.60 TWh = 0.22 Mtoe renewable energy.
  • The VEA assumes that BEE Power Ghent would receive about 1,450,000 green energy certificates per annum. (Report 2015/1, Section 3: quote path evaluation, generation of targets and market analysis report, the VEA (2015)) This equates to a renewable energy generation of 1.54 TWh = 0.13 Mtoe. (The banding factor for this plant is 0.939.)
  • The annual number of full load hours is about 897 for solar photovoltaic. (Report 2014/2, Section 1: Report OT/Bf for PV projects starting on or after 1 July 2015, the VEA (2014)). A 1,000 MV increase of solar photovoltaic power leads to additional electricity generation in the region of 0.9 TWh = 0.08 Mtoe.
  • The annual number of full load hours is about 2,130 for onshore wind energy. (Report 2015/1, Section 1: Definitive OT/Bf report for projects starting on or after 1 January 2016, the VEA (2015)). A 1000 MW increase in onshore wind power leads to additional electricity generation in the region of 2.1 TWh = 0.18 Mtoe. The most common turbines in Flanders are the 2.3 MW turbines. An additional 1000 MW of power would require a further 435 wind turbines, each of 2.3 MW, and 2,130 full load hours.


Fact Check Biomassa

It takes considerably more wind and solar power to generate the same quantity of electricity as a biomass power plant, due to the lower number of equivalent full load hours for solar-PV and wind.

  • To generate the same quantity of renewable energy as BEE Power Ghent it will require about 700 MW of wind power (ca. 300 wind turbines of 2.3 MW) or 1,700 MW of solar-PV power.
  • To generate the same quantity of renewable energy as the Langerlo plant it will require about 1,200 MW of wind power (ca. 500 wind turbines of 2.3 MW) or 2,900 MW of solar-PV power.


In 2014 there were 237,660 solar-PV installations in Flanders with a total capacity of 2,169 MW. (Inventory of Renewable Energy Sources in Flanders 2005-2014, VITO (2016).) In the past, solar-PV has witnessed annual capacity increases of more than 800 MW (in 2011), but the growth has slowed considerably since 2013 (Figure 1). In the indicative sub-targets for green energy the VEA assumes an increase of 680 MW in 2015-2020 (table 3).

In 2014 Flanders had 299 wind turbines (above 300 kW) with a total installed capacity of 587 MW. (Inventory of Renewable Energy Resources in Flanders 2005-2014, VITO (2016).) In the period 2004-2014 capacity increases of 21 to 125 MW per annum were achieved (see Figure 2). In the indicative sub-targets for green energy the VEA assumes an increase of 480 MW in the 2015-2020 period.

The VEA’s figures for onshore wind are very conservative. In other countries there is a clear tendency towards larger systems (3 MW, e.g. Ireland). In this case the capacity per turbine is higher by a factor of 1.3 or, in other words, 4 turbines instead of 5. The hub height on the larger turbines increases their service life. The VEA estimates service life at a very cautious 2,130 hours. And for 2 MW turbines Wase Wind (external link) indicates a service life of 2,560 hours. This would seem to indicate that the wind turbine figures are wildly overestimated.

The VEA has calculated the uneconomic peaks which determine the level of subsidy provided via the green energy certification system. The results show that the subsidy requirement per MWh of renewable energy is higher for biomass plants than for wind and solar.



Source: VEA, Report 2015, Section 1 Definitive report OT/Bf for projects starting on or after 1 January 2016


Fact Check Biomassa

Under these basic assumptions the subsidies for Langerlo will cost in the region of 242 million euros per annum over 10 years. The subsidies for BEE Power Ghent are in the region of 135 million euros per annum over 15 years.

Considerable potential still exists in Flanders for solar photovoltaic and onshore wind. The Fast Lane for wind energy gives a more accurate picture of the technically, economically and socially acceptable potential. Additionally, the Flemish solar map is currently under development. This will provide an online tool to view solar photovoltaic roof surface area per built location, so that an estimate can be made of the electricity generation.

To generate the same amount of electricity in 2020 by means of extra solar-PV and wind power, as would be generated by the planned biomass plants, we would need to greatly increase the established annual capacity.

It is important that we do not confine our discussion of renewable energy to electricity. There are various other forms of renewable energy which could offer a significant contribution. These are renewable energy in transportation (biofuels) and heating and cooling (such as geothermal heat, biomass, heat pumps and solar heat). It is a question of how easily a large-scale, extra roll-out of these technologies can be orchestrated. At the present time EnergyVille is studying the potential for renewable energy to 2030 on behalf of the VEA.

Zon-PV-vermogen dat in aanmerking komt voor groenestroomcertificaten naar jaar van indienstname.

Figuur 1: Zon-PV-vermogen dat in aanmerking komt voor groenestroomcertificaten naar jaar van indienstname.
(VREG, Evolutie van het aantal zonnepanelen en hun vermogen (1/03/2016) (external link))


Vermogen windenergie op land dat in aanmerking komt voor groenestroomcertificaten naar jaar van indienstname

Figuur 2: Vermogen windenergie op land dat in aanmerking komt voor groenestroomcertificaten naar jaar van indienstname
(VREG, Geïnstalleerde productiecapaciteit groene stroom in Vlaanderen (3/3/2016) (external link))

Role of biomass plants in the energy system

In 2014 the European Council endorsed a binding EU target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% (of the 1990 levels) in 2030. The aim is to increase the renewable energy share to at least 27%, but it is no longer applied in the national renewable energy targets. To achieve this it will be necessary to utilise a much greater proportion of the renewable energy potential and to save more energy. The EU has also set itself the target of reducing emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050.

The disadvantage with wind and solar energy is that they do not always supply electricity to demand. Security of supply can, in theory, be assisted by dynamic, large-scale biomass plants. Therefore, biomass plants present an alternative to fossil fuelled plants, although their dynamic response is limited in comparison to gas fired plants. The controls also reduce the amount of energy generated and so also reduce green energy certificate revenue during the period of subsidy. Solutions such as energy storage and demand flexibility could, in the longer term, play a greater role in accommodating greater quantities of non-adjustable power generation in the generation mix.

An integrated analysis of the energy system is required to gauge the impact of these various electricity generation technologies and to harmonise demand flexibility, energy storage and energy demand.

Properties of large biomass plants

Large biomass plants have a number of key properties:

  • The use of biomass has several potential side effects, such as effects on biodiversity, water usage, the carbon- nutrient balance in the soil and indirect changes in land use. A verification system has been worked out in the Sustainable Biomass Partnership (SBP) (external link), in which a number of large biomass consumers participate, to monitor the sustainability criteria governing the origin of biomass.
  • Biomass plants emit CO2, but the quantity they emit is equivalent to the CO2 taken from the air by growing plants and trees, and so represents a short chain CO2 circuit. If a (long term) loss of carbon storage is noted in forests and soils this must be accounted for by means of Carbon Accounting. The conditions governing sustainable forestry can be used here – they too are a part of the sustainability requirements in the SBP system.
  • The transportation or pre-processing of biomass uses energy, possibly of fossil origin. The Flemish green energy certification system takes account of the fossil energy in the chain – in the case of the long-distance transportation of wood pellets, the number of green energy generation certificates received by a producer is generally reduced by 15%. The European trend is to assume a minimum greenhouse gas saving of 60% for biomass plants compared to fossil fuelled electricity or heat generation.
  • There may be competition between the use of biomass for energy purposes and its use in other applications such as chipboard or paper production. In Flanders there are consultations with the coordinating federations of Fedustria and Cobelpa to ascertain whether some timber flows might be a raw material for these industries. Flanders does not issue green energy certificates for timber flows used as raw materials in industry.
  • The long term cost effectiveness of biomass plants depends on the cost of the fuel, and therefore the trend in biomass prices. It is quite possible, therefore, that renewable energy generation will cease to be cost-effective after the subsidy period and that power generation will be abandoned.

Small scale installations

The small scale incineration of biomass could present an alternative to large scale incineration, but it does have its limitations. It is difficult to achieve a large capacity in the short term with small scale plants. From the technological/economic perspective it is much easier for a large plant to control its air pollutant emissions to the air. Small scale installations have fewer means to achieve this economically. According to the European method for determining the share of renewable energy, the conversion of a given quantity of biomass to heat yields a greater contribution to the final consumption of renewable energy than conversion of the same quantity of biomass to electricity. This is due to the conversion losses during electricity generation.

Biomass plants which use cogeneration (CHP) could also satisfy a decentralised demand for heat. In the case of cogeneration, both heat and electricity are generated with considerably greater efficiency than in plants which only generate electricity. If it is the aim to ensure that a given quantity of biomass delivers the greatest contribution to the share of renewable energy, then it is important that the heat be valorised. A new biomass power plant will generally have a 40% energy output. CHPs can achieve yields of up to 85%. This greatly depends on the decentralised demand for heat, the type of heat required (high or low temperature, use of a heat distribution network, seasonal demand), and the economic profiles of these systems. Small scale installations also tend to depend on the local availability of biomass. Large scale initiatives tend to depend on imports from areas with a greater biomass supply).

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