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France bets on wood as fuel of the future

By Paul Whitehead

April 22 - Alongside hi-tech renewables like wind and solar, France sees wood playing a key role in its energy future. It is already the country’s leading source of renewable energy, but a government-sponsored program seeks a high-tech revolution in wood-burning appliances.

Renewable heat, biomass and energy efficiency have all been separately described as the “sleeping giants” of the European energy landscape and all will have to play a key role in helping the EU meet its target to deliver 20% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020.

In France, the national target is to boost renewables’ share of total energy consumption from 10.3% in 2005 to 23% in 2020.

Hydro is a well established power source -- second only to nuclear -- and wind and solar have seen significant development in recent years.

But, according to figures from the French biomass industry association, France Biomasse Energie, and the French renewables association SER, wood-based fuels are by far the country’s leading renewable energy resource.

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Wood is the oldest fuel around -- it was being used for heating and cooking long before fossil fuels were harnessed.

But French wood energy remains a key source of energy and its use is set to rise further thanks to a government program to make even greater use of France’s wood energy resource

Speaking a workshop organized by European biomass association AEBIOM as part of the EU’s Sustainable Energy Week in Brussels late March, Olivier Bertrand, head of bioenergy at the SER explained the role that wood based fuels are already playing in the French energy mix.

“Wood used as a domestic fuel is already the leading source of renewable energy in France, accounting for 37% of the total in 2009, a year in which renewable sources accounted for 12.5% or 20 million metric tons of oil equivalent,” said Bertrand. (See related chart: French renewable energy breakdown).

In addition, the use of wood and woodwaste products as a fuel in industry, including for district heating and combined heat and power, accounted for a further 14% according to SER figures, meaning that overall, biomass derived from wood makes up over half of all current renewable energy in France.

Both current use of wood energy and potential use are higher in France than many other EU countries.

This is because with 12.81 million hectares of forestry land suitable for biomass production, France has the EU’s third largest resource after Sweden and Finland, according to figures from the European Environment Agency.

The EU as a whole has 97.46 million hectares of forestry land suitable for biomass production.

But EEA figures also show that by 2007 France was only using 43% of its total biomass potential, 13.39 million metric tons of oil equivalent, from a total estimated potential of 31.4 million mtoe.

This is the highest national potential of any EU country, well ahead of Germany in second place, where EEA estimates a total potential of 26.2 million mtoe, and crucially Germany is already exploiting as much as 84% of that potential.

The EU as whole is using about 52% of its total biomass potential according to EEA estimates.

But some countries have even greater unexploited potential, with Poland and the UK only using 23% and 20% respectively out of a relatively large resource. And some smaller countries like Cyprus and Lithuania are barely using any of their, albeit small, biomass resources.

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