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Journal of Energy and Power Engineering 15 (2021) 1-7
doi: 10.17265/1934-8975/2021.01.001
The Role of Bioenergy in Italy in the Transition towards
a Bio-based Economy
Daniela Sica1, Benedetta Esposito1, Maria Rosaria Sessa1, Ornella Malandrino1 and StefaniaSupino2
1. Department of Business Sciences-Management and Innovation Systems (DISA-MIS), University of Salerno, Salerno 84084, Italy
2. Department of Human Science and Promotion of the Quality of Life, San Raffaele University, Rome 00166, Italy
Abstract: The opportunities and challenges for the development of a sustainable Italian bioeconomy vary according to the bioenergy
used in the various sectors, in line with the principle of “making better use of what we already use” and “effectively using what we do
not yet use”. The aim of the present paper is to analyse the main driving factors “for and against” innovative energy policies, focused on
bioenegy related to natural cycles and systems, including turning the “energy” present in agricultural and industrial waste and
byproducts into usable forms. The role of biogas and biomethane, particularly, in the Italian scenario, will be analysed in the light of
current environmental policy trends.
Key words: Bioenegy, bio-economy, circular economy.
1. Background
The recent orientation of energy policy, especially at
European level, towards sustainability, understood in
terms of economic competitiveness, environmental
protection and security of supply, has led to profound
changes in energy scenarios, which are still dominated
by fossil sources.
In this context, renewable energy sources (RES)
have acquired an increasingly significant role, as a
fundamental instrument of European energy
governance, in line with the “2030 climate & energy
framework” which sets new objectives for the diffusion
of renewable sources, energy and reduction of CO2
emissions, overall much more ambitious than those
foreseen for 2020 in the “Climate-Energy Package”.
An important outcome of the work on the “2030
Framework” was the approval of Regulation
2018/1999 on the governance of the Energy Union (EU)
and climate action.
The regulation inaugurates a transparent and
Corresponding author: Daniela Sica, Ph.D., research fields:
circular economy, sustainable energy management; integrated
management systems.
dynamic governance system for the management of
energy-climate objectives by 2030 and provides,
among other things, for all Member States to draw up
and send to the European Commission an Integrated
National Plan for Energy and Climate to be updated
every two years.
Based on the initiatives undertaken at European
level, Italy has recently drawn up the “Piano Nazionale
Integrato per l’Energia e ilClima” (PNIEC) sent to the
European Commission on 31 December 2019.
The main objectives stated in the PNIEC foresee to
increasingly direct research and innovation in the
energy sector towards the development of product and
process technologies, organizational and management
systems and models functional to the energy transition
and safety, in order to favor the modernization of the
production system in line with the long-term energy
and environmental scenario. In terms of financial
resources, Italy has committed itself to doubling the
resources for research in these areas in the short term.
In this context, RES are confirmed as a strategic
resource for the sustainable development of the country.
This is due to the potential benefits related to the
reduction of polluting and climate-altering emissions,
The Role of Bioenergy in Italy in the Transition towards a Bio-based Economy
the improvement of energy security and the economic
and employment opportunities for families and the
production system.
The development of RES in Italy has been widely
supported over the years both through diversified
incentive systems and by adopting planning and
direction tools. In 2010, the Ministry of Economic
Development issued, in implementation of Directive
2009/28/EC, the “National Action Plan for Renewable
Energy Sources” (NAP RES), which identified, among
other things, specific actions for each technology and
application, together with the quantitative objectives in
the various areas of intervention (electricity, air
conditioning and transport).
In order to ensure the achievement of the objectives
defined in the NAP RES, Legislative Decree No. 28 of
3 March 2011 which, in addition to organically
redefining the institutional, financial and legal
framework, provided for the adoption of a series of
tools to support renewable sources, aimed at pursuing
greater effectiveness, efficiency and stability over time,
as well as a reduction in the specific charges borne by
users/consumers [1].
More recently (March 2013, revised in November
2017), the Ministry of Economic Development has
published the National Energy Strategy (SEN), a
medium-long term policy and planning tool aimed at
defining a stable regulatory framework and consistent
over time for the development of the Italian energy
sector [2, 3].
The SEN formed the programmatic and political
basis for the subsequent adoption of the PNIEC.
A central element of the SEN was represented by the
support for the sustainability of renewable energies,
with a view to decarbonising the energy sector and
reducing the vulnerability of fossil fuel supplies, which
currently represent over 70% of our Energy Balance
and almost 80% from abroad.
In recent years, the RES have shown, through these
support actions, growth trends in all sectors of use
(electricity, heat, transport); the estimated share of total
national energy consumption covered by renewables
has exceeded the threshold of 18% (of which 11%
associated with the latest generation
renewables—wind, solar, biomass, geothermal,
hydroelectric, biofuels, etc., and the remaining 7% to
traditional biomass), a value higher, for the sixth
consecutive year, than the target of 17%, assigned to
Italy by directive 2009/28/EC for 2020. The absolute
difference to be bridged to reach the target to 2030 set
by the Integrated National Plan for Energy and Climate
(RES share equal to 30%) would therefore be just less
than 12 percentage points.
In the electricity sector, in particular, Italy is one of
the most dynamic markets at EU level, ranking sixth
for new installed power in 2019 (2.1 GW of new
RES-powered plants, compared to 2018) after Spain
(6.3 GW), Germany (6.1 GW), Great Britain (2.7 GW),
France (2.4 GW) and the Netherlands (2.3 GW).
The RES that, over the last few years, have recorded
a significant increase in production are above all wind
and photovoltaic ones. Instead, the increase in
bioenergy was more contained. This national trend
follows the one that characterizes the situation at the
international level.
Suffice it to say that globally, in the electricity sector,
the new installed power of bioenergy plants in 2019
was equal to 6.1 GW compared to 97 GW of new
photovoltaic power, 59 GW of new wind power and
12.5 GW of hydroelectricity. In the transport sector, the
global production of biofuels represents—according to
IEA data—93% of the use of renewable sources in the
sector, while the remainder is attributable to electric
vehicles. For the thermal sector, which concentrates
more than 50% of total final consumption, excluding
the traditional use of solid biomass, the other thermal
renewables, with 21.2 EJ of total energy supplied,
satisfied about 10% of the global heat demand mainly
through the use of modern bioenergy (cogeneration
systems combined with district heating, biomass
boilers and biomethane injection) for about 72% of the
total (15.3 EJ), followed by renewable electricity to
The Role of Bioenergy in Italy in the Transition towards a Bio-based Economy
produce heat (18% equivalent to 3.8 EJ), from solar
thermal (7% of the total equal to 1.5 EJ) and from
geothermal (3% of the total equal to 0.6 EJ).
From the picture outlined, the importance of further
enhancing bioenergy which has the advantage of being
continuous and programmable emerges. In fact, despite
the great technological development of wind and
photovoltaic sources and the greater economic
convenience of the same, the energy produced is not
programmable and is, by itself, insufficient to power,
for example, a transition to a 100% renewable
electricity system.
Bioenergy can make a substantial contribution to
meeting future energy demand in a sustainable way and
has a significant potential for expansion both in the
production of electricity and heat and—in the form of
biofuels—in the transport sector.
The production of bioenergy in Italy is a widespread
and consolidated reality, which makes use of a plurality
of raw materials—both residual and from dedicated
crops—and the availability of mature and reliable
The importance of supporting the growth of
bioenergy with the development and industrialization
of innovative technologies, processes and components
and the development of reliable methodologies for
assessing the potential of biomass and the creation of
agro-energy chains is widely recognized, truly
sustainable in both economic and environmental terms.
Based on Terna-Gse data, in 2018 bioenergy covered
18% of electricity production from renewable sources,
equal to 5.6% of our country’s electricity demand. At a
European level, Italy, together with France, Germany,
Spain and Romania, is among the countries with the
highest potential (the European Environment Agency).
Among bioenergy, the production of biogas for the
generation of heat and/or electricity or for conversion
into biomethane plays an extremely important role.
To date, biogas is the only renewable, versatile and
technologically established energy source capable of
producing heat, steam, electricity and vehicle fuel.
Furthermore, biomethane can count on a potential,
estimated on the basis of electricity production from
biogas, of approximately 2.5 billion cubic meters, with
an estimated growth of approximately 8 billion cubic
meters by 2030, equal to approximately 12-13% of the
current annual natural gas requirement and two thirds
of the storage potential of the national network. In this
perspective, biomethane also makes it possible to
allocate at least part of the biogas used for electricity
production to transport.
The introduction of regulatory constraints in the
treatment of organic waste and recent commitments in
the field of renewable energy has fueled the interest of
market operators in these technologies.
This work aims to highlight how, driven by the
initiatives implemented at European level, Italy has
promoted the development and dissemination of
bioenergy through diversified incentive systems and
through various planning and direction tools.
This is in order to evaluate the contribution that can
be offered by bioenergy and, in particular, biogas to the
affirmation of a bioeconomy, or rather an economy
capable of reorienting current models of economic
development towards sustainable production and
consumption systems.
2. The Role of Bioenergy in Italy
The bioenergy sector in Italy, in recent years, has
experienced a period of great development both in
terms of installed capacity and energy produced
(Tables 1 and 2).
Between 2004 and 2018, electricity generated with
bioenergy grew by an average of 11% per year, from
4,499 GWh to 19,153 GWh.
Production in 2018 comes to 43.3% from biogas,
34.3% from solid biomass (in particular, 12.6% from
biodegradable waste and 21.7% from other solid
biomass) and 22.4%% from bioliquids.
Particularly significant in recent years is the growth
of biogas production, which rose from 1,665 GWh in
2009 to 8,300 GWh in 2018 [4].
The Role of Bioenergy in Italy in the Transition towards a Bio-based Economy
As regards the thermal energy obtained in Italy from
bioenergy, in 2018 they amounted to 292,409 TJ.
Direct consumption, in particular, amounted to
270,383 TJ; industry absorbs about 45% of it, while the
remaining 55% refers to trade and services. There is no
direct consumption of biogas in the residential sector.
The region characterized by the highest levels of
direct thermal consumption of bioenergy is Lombardy,
which alone reaches just under 42% of total national
consumption; followed by Lazio (8.5%), Veneto
(7.9%), Emilia Romagna (7.5%) and Piedmont (6.3%).
The southern regions concentrate 14.1% of total
In 2018, 586 TJ of biomethane was introduced into
the network, of which 529 TJ of direct consumption
and 57 TJ in the form of derived heat.
The use of biomethane, on the other hand, in the
transport sector still plays a marginal role compared to
the other biofuels used (biodiesel, bio-ETBE,
bioethanol) (Table 3).
However, it is necessary to highlight that bioenergy
represents a singularity in the panorama of renewable
sources. Unlike other RES, bioenergy is characterized
by high generation costs, mainly attributable to the
costs of the raw material. The sector, therefore,
requires practically constant public incentives even in
cases where the raw material should come from
agricultural self-production.
The recent SEN, however, provides for a downsizing
of the forms of incentives for existing bioenergy, since
the variable cost of the raw material does not show any
signs of reduction over time, and indeed, probably,
remains high precisely because of the incentives. This
is in order to reduce system charges on the bill and
Table 1 Evolution of the number and power of plants powered by bioenergy (2010-2018).
2010 2015 2018
No. MW No. MW No. MW No. MW
Bioenergy 686 2,352 2,818 4,056 3,096 4,180 335% 76%
Solid biomass from 138 1,243 369 1,612 475 1,725 244% 39%
-urban waste 71 798 69 953 65 939 -8% 18%
-other biomasses 67 445 300 659 410 787 512% 77%
Biogas from 451 508 1,924 1,406 2,136 1,448 374% 185%
-waste 228 341 380 399 403 406 77% 19%
-sludge 47 15 78 44 79 44 68% 193%
-animal waste 95 41 493 217 615 239 547% 483%
-agricultural and
forestry activities 81 110 973 746 1,039 760 1,183% 591%
Bioliquids from 97 601 525 1,038 485 1,007 400% 68%
-crude vegetable oils 86 510 436 892 391 857 355% 68%
-other bioliquids 11 91 89 146 94 150 755% 65%
Source: Ref. [4].
Table 2 Bioenergy in the thermal sector (2018).
Direct consumption (TJ)
Gross production of derived heat
Total (TJ)
Thermal production
only plants (TJ) Cogeneration plants (TJ)
Solid biomass 270,383 3,359 18,667 292,409
Bioliquids - 28 2,134 2,162
Biogas 1,749 6 8,946 10,701
Biomethan 529 4 53 586
Total 272,661 3,397 29,800 305,858
Source: Ref. [4].
The Role of Bioenergy in Italy in the Transition towards a Bio-based Economy
Table 3 Biofuels released for consumption in Italy2018.
Biofuels Quantity (tons) Energy (TJ)
Biodiesel 1,377,205 50,957
Bio-ETBE 36,995 1,332
Bioethanol 1,243 34
Biomethane 363 18
Total 1,415,806 52,341
Source: Ref. [4].
avoid treatments that do not stimulate efficiency. The
introduction of more efficient tools than those recently
introduced by legislation is planned to promote fair
competition on the raw materials market [3].
New forms of tariff incentives are envisaged only for
very small plants, which have higher costs than large
ones, and for lower impact supply chains such as
bioenergy from agricultural waste and residues.
For various forms of bioenergy, the SEN provides
for an enhancement of the tools to support the
production of biomethane to be used for transport.
In fact, biomethane can be used, without technical
limitations and no technological changes, in vehicles
already running on natural gas for light and heavy
transport, in the urban distribution of goods, in public
transport and soon also in agricultural mechanization.
The fleet of cars and methane gas stations is already
highly developed in Italy. In the form of bio-LNG,
liquefied biomethane, it would partially replace the use
of biodiesel which, in Italy, constitutes 92% of the
biofuels used, but is almost entirely produced from
imported raw materials [5].
Furthermore, in terms of emissions, in a
well-to-wheel perspective, biomethane vehicles
produce CO2 emissions comparable to those of an
electric vehicle powered by energy from renewable
sources, with a reduction in emissions of 80-90%
compared to traditional fuels. PM10 emissions are
practically absent and NOX emissions are reduced by
70% [6].
Italy therefore has a green resource of inestimable
value that must be adequately supported by a clear and
stable regulatory framework.
The model of agricultural biogas/biomethane made
in Italy is a best practice at a global level as
biogasdoneright is promoted nationally [7-9].
The biogas supply chain consists of various
biological processes and various energy conversion
steps [10]. In particular, the spinneret can be divided
into four phases: procurement, biogas production, use
of digestate and biogas.
In the procurement phase it is possible to use a large
variety of raw materials such as municipal and
industrial organic waste, animal waste, agricultural
by-products or dedicated energy crops [11].
In particular, biogas is usually distinguished as
landfill biogas, produced by the digestion of waste
in landfills;
biogas from sewage sludge, produced by the
anaerobic fermentation of sewage sludge;
biogas, produced for example by the anaerobic
fermentation of livestock sewage, agricultural products
or agro-industrial by-products.
In Italy, according to a survey conducted by the
Energy Services Manager (GSE) in 2017, dedicated
energy crops, crop residues, organic waste, slurry and
manure from farms accounted for 49%, 1%
respectively, 19% and 31% of the total raw materials
used in biogas plants [4]. Preferably, the input
materials are produced close to the biogas plant to
avoid leaks and reduce transport costs [12].
In the context of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
studies conducted on biogas, manure and, in general,
organic waste appear to be the most sustainable way of
producing biogas, unlike dedicated energy crops which
require higher costs [10]. Some studies show that the
environmental performance of biogas, used as fuel and
deriving from organic waste and sewage sludge, is
comparable to those attributable to the use of diesel or
natural gas.
As regards the construction and demolition phases of
a biogas plant, some studies in the literature highlight
the small environmental impacts that can be further
The Role of Bioenergy in Italy in the Transition towards a Bio-based Economy
reduced through greater use of the plant [13].
In general, electricity produced from biogas has a
lower environmental impact than electricity generated
from fossil fuels [14].
Furthermore, numerous studies have shown the main
environmental benefits, in terms of global warming
potential (GWP) and resource consumption (RC), of
energy systems using biogas compared to those
powered by fossil fuels [15].
3. Conclusions
Bioenergy is transforming the Italian energy
landscape. In the next decades, these sources will
play an increasingly central role in the energy field,
also in view of the ambitious goals to be achieved by
2050. In the electricity sector, for example, it is
necessary to increase the current production share
generated by bioenergy, especially in the long term
In recent years, our country has accelerated the
spread of installations of RES-fueled systems, even if
government policies have been anything but linear; in
fact, continuous and profound changes in the
regulatory framework and too high incentives have
represented major obstacles.
The support policies have led to concentrating
resources only on some technologies of the electricity
sector, in particular wind and photovoltaic [16].
Therefore, the new incentive system will have to be
projected solely towards the enhancement of some
RES, for example a greater diffusion of biogas and
biomethane is hoped for.
A strong stimulus could also come, at a national
level, from the research sector to improve the
characteristics and performance of current technologies
and favor particular innovative applications, such as
two-stage plants for the production of biomethane and
A large-scale diffusion of bioenergy can take place
above all through a strong reduction in costs that makes
them economically competitive. In order to achieve the
priority objective aimed at a greater penetration of
bioenergy, it will be necessary to identify a clear and
timely regulatory framework for incentives.
The recent guidelines, however, are aimed at
progressively reducing financial incentives for the
development of RES in order to guide the energy
production system towards the diffusion of more
complex energy management interventions
characterized by greater competitiveness and their
correct integration at territorial.
Bioenergies represent an essential tool for the
decarbonisation of the Italian energy system. In
particular, biogas/biomethane can play a strategic role
in this regard [17].
A biogas plant, in fact, if connected to both the gas
and electricity networks, becomes a small, flexible and
decentralized biorefinery capable of producing
biomethane, electricity, heat and organic fertilizers.
The greening of the gas network makes the network
itself an infrastructure that collects renewable energy
from the territory, concentrates it, accumulates it and
transports it at competitive costs.
Energy can be used where and when it is most
convenient and in the most appropriate form, such as
electricity, fuel, to cover different energy needs.
The biogas supply chain also generates value for
society through the creation of new jobs, the spread of
RES and the enhancement of a wide range of substrates
(industrial and urban wastewater and sludge, organic
fraction of solid urban waste, animal waste, crop
residues) [18].
In fact, anaerobic digestion technologies allow not
only a reduction in emissions that varies according to
the type of substrate, the technology used and the
operating practices of the supply chain, but also the
elimination of bad odors and the replacement of
chemical fertilizers with the digestate.
Energy systems that use biogas, therefore, contribute
to the affirmation of production paradigms designed to
promote an economy based on sustainability and
circularity in the use of resources.
The Role of Bioenergy in Italy in the Transition towards a Bio-based Economy
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Piano di Azione Nazionale per le Energie Rinnovabili
  • Sviluppo Ministero Dello
  • Economico
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