Written by 3:05 pm European Union

the key to the EU sugar industry’s decarbonisation – EURACTIV.com

Fit For 55, the EU’s package of energy- and climate-related legislative proposals, sets an EU-wide target of -55% GHG reductions by 2030. The roll-out of renewables will be crucial in meeting these targets, including in the EU sugar sector. But to decarbonise we need a revised Renewable Energy Directive that helps, rather than hinders, the use of residual beet pulp as an energy solution.

Tackling climate change and boosting EU energy security are of paramount importance. So the European Commission’s proposal to revise the Renewable Energy Directive is commendable. Energy makes up 70% of Europe’s emissions. The roll-out of renewable energies must be supported.

This also goes for the sugar industry. Sugar production is energy-intensive, relying on high-temperature process heat to evaporate water from shredded sugar beets. It is also seasonal because sugar beets are perishable and must be processed as soon as possible. Since beet processing only takes place over 3-4 months in the year, capacities must be used to their maximum extent 24/7 to optimise costs. This means that the energy source must be 100% reliable and fully available during the whole the production period.

Fortunately, such an energy source exists: beet pulp. Beet pulp is what remains after the extraction of the sugar from the beet. It has multiple applications, e.g. for animal feed, fibres, and energy.

The use of a part of the beet pulp to produce heat and power – directly or via biogas – is already increasing. This is particularly the case where there is no – or a reduced – local animal feed market for the pulp. In order to market the beet pulp for animal feed, in these cases, it needs the energy to be dehydrated to allow for its transport and subsequent use. So using beet pulp to produce energy would reduce the industry’s energy needs while providing the very green energy needed to decarbonise.

Not all the beet pulp currently produced would be needed to decarbonise sugar manufacturing; a substantial portion would remain available for other uses. French sugar producer Cristal Union estimates 55% of beet pulp would be sufficient to meet the company’s energy needs; Nordzucker 60%.

Alternative solutions are unavailable

Direct electrification of sugar manufacturing is often technically impossible due to the rural location of many of our factories, usually far from high-voltage electricity grids and of uncertain economic viability. Renewable hydrogen is not a short or medium-term solution for our sector: competition with other industries will be fierce, pushing up prices; it is doubtful that hydrogen infrastructure will be extended to the rural locations where sugar factories are located.

In addition, both solutions will take time. Grid operators are already overburdened: it can take 7-10 years to connect a factory to the grid (and even then, it may be unviable). And the low availability of renewable hydrogen is expected to persist for many years. This is time which we don’t have. Decarbonisation of sugar manufacturing will require substantial investments (billions of euros at EU level) and must therefore be spread over time. We need to start now.

We’re counting on flexible rules for the energetic self-use of biomass residues from sugar beet processing. Technically, this solution could be rolled out relatively quickly in a stepwise manner. It is also compatible with (partial) electrification in the medium term or the use of renewable hydrogen in the long term if such solutions are made viable for rural areas.

The energy potential of the biomass generated by beet processing is essential to contribute to the decarbonisation of the sugar industry, without straining the electricity grid and without relying on hypothetical access to scarce renewable resources such as green hydrogen. Energetic self-use of our biomass contributes to EU energy independence and is aligned with the Commission’s REPowerEU biogas production target.

RED proposal: closing the door on the energetic self-use of beet pulp?

Unfortunately, the European Commission’s proposal for the Renewable Energy Directive revision contains a fundamental contradiction: it would restrict the energetic use of biomass (even residual and waste biomass) while at the same time increasing the EU’s ambition when it comes to renewable energy.

In effect, the proposal would make it impossible to use beet pulp to decarbonise beet sugar production in the EU. Where electrification or hydrogen use is not possible due to the rural set-up of the factory or the high cost of investments, the viability of the sugar factory will be endangered as the cost of energy and emissions allowances becomes too high. Once a factory becomes unviable, closure becomes inevitable.

Such closures represent a permanent loss to the European rural economy; the high capital intensity of sugar factories and the disappearance of local agricultural expertise (often generational) mean once terminated, local sugar production is unlikely to return. The closure of a beet sugar factory would also mean a complete loss of beet pulp available for use in animal feed and other purposes.

EU beet sugar would be replaced by imports – mostly from cane. Sources agree that cane sugar is less sustainable than European beet sugar, owing to its far higher agricultural emissions. A decline in EU beet sugar production would therefore be a blow to the climate.

The good news is that the EU Council and European Parliament have adopted pragmatic positions on the most radical parts of the Commission’s proposal. Both institutions agree that no field emissions should be assigned to residues and wastes: this is essential if beet pulp is to meet the greenhouse gas reduction thresholds for biomass fuels for heating. And the Council’s position on these thresholds is more moderate than the Commission’s: no retroactivity (except for installations in operation for over 15 years), and thresholds set at the same level as currently.

Now it is up to the European Commission to mediate a compromise that ensures the use of beet pulp to decarbonise the beet sugar industry remains possible. The RED revision must not close the door to the energetic use of residues on our doorstep.

Marie-Christine Ribera is the director-general at CEFS. Josh Gartland is the deputy director-general at CEFS.

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