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I chose to do my work experience at a South East Wood Fuels because I wanted to see what goes on behind the scenes of a renewable energy company and how sustainable energy companies are run.  I wanted to have a taste of working in biomass as it is the energy of the future, as fossil fuel supplies are running low and people’s interest in using energy sources that have high greenhouse gas emissions are decreasing, experience of working in companies like these could prove to be priceless.



On Monday morning I met Mike Chapman the SEWF Operations Manager and was taken straight to Ashdown Forest where one of the company’s largest depots is held on the Crowborough Warren Estate.  After getting out the car the first thing I saw was a mountain of woodchip three times my height and next to it was a stack of timber stretching all the way down to the forest. After being explained how the company buys and seasons virgin roundwood timber from local forests,  produces and sells woodchip we got back into the car and went to a tree surgeons yard where bits of tree from people’s gardens and is turned into a different grade of woodchip for customers with large industrial systems who burn it for heat.  Once Mike had conversed with a man sorting the surgeons timber we moved on to the company’s depot in north Kent.   We took a sample of the wood chip (Sweet chestnut coppice), inspected the on-site biomass boiler and then set off back to the SEWF base in Laughton, East Sussex.  I met the SEWF team  and was I included in a team meeting which discussed the company’s goals and objectives for the coming week.  Before leaving the office and going back home we did a G50 particle test on the samples that had been collected earlier in the day and recorded the different percentages of each type of chip.


The moment I got in the car on Tuesday morning we set off to West Sussex to meet the Forest Manager for the Cowdray Estate, to inspect and measure a stack of timber and agree a price for purchase. The wood will be taken to the SEWF hub for chipping, and dispatch to customers once the heating season resumes in September.  I learned how you measure the volume of a tree stack and he told me about the different types of wood and their quality, the stack we had measured was sweet chestnut, a variety that has been in England since the Roman times.  The forester called sweet chestnut  an ‘honorary native’.  The forest manager drove us round the forest where we saw deer as well as chestnut coppicing.  We left the bright yellow painted housing of the Cowdray estate and went on to a new customer an hour away from the estate where we watched over their first delivery of wood chip to make sure everything was going well.  On the way back we stopped off at a willow grower who had just been harvesting their 8 meter high 5 year old willow crop where we watched a high tech harvester turn a field length strip of willow into 10 tons of woodchip in under 10 minutes.Unfortunately on the way out of the willow plantation we got stuck in mud and had to be rescued by the man who planned to sell us the wood.



Wednesday was an office day. I spent the day preparing and testing the fuel samples which we had collected earlier in the week.  These results tell us which wood chips have greater or lesser percentages of the different particle sizes and also tells us the moisture content of each 1 kilo sample.  All of the samples met the Onorm Standard for size and were within the required moisture content parameters.  After drawing up the results table I was given a tour of the on site district heating system which incidentally had a water leak in their storage it had formed a small puddle in the middle of the fuel silo.

Location Depot 1 Depot 2 Depot 3 Depot 3 Depot 4
Wood Chestnut Fresh Mixed Logs Fresh Cut Willow Mixed Conifer Chestnut
Coarse>31.5 0.60% 7.60% 0% 2.30% 0.90%
Maine <60% 71.10% 79.30% 91.60% 91.40% 90%
Fine>20% 17.00% 1.04% 0.67% 5.50% 9.70%
Dust>4% 0.60% 0.10% 0.60% 0.50% 0.30%
moisture Test Incomplete 41% 49% 14% Test incomplete
Date 13/06/2016 13/06/2016 14/06/2016 14/06/2016 16/06/2016
Size Test OnormStandard OnormStandard OnormStandard OnormStandard OnormStandard
Particle size G50 G50 G50 G50 G50


On Thursday we returned to the Ashdown forest depot to check the deliveries that had been made during the week and measure and mark up the a large stack of timber using a biodegradable spray canister, marking details every 10 meters.  To ensure there is sufficient wood to supply demand for the coming winter the available wood is carefully checked and measured during the summer.We measured the stack of latest deliveries and painted up the measurements so that as the wood is chipped next winter the ratio of chip to wood can be measured and recorded.This 86 meter long stack of wood which has been drying for a year would accumulate to approximately 522.5m³ this converted into loose chips would make 1436m³ however to my surprise this amount often only lasts 6 weeks.


The week has been memorable and provided an insight into the low carbon industries of the future.  Learning about what a biomass energy business is, and how it works has proven to be really interesting. Finding low carbon energy sources will be vital if we want to properly combat the onset of climate change, thank you South East Wood Fuels for giving me brilliant experience.

PS Sorry about the coffee Graham


Biomass CHP – time to take note?

An ArborElectrogen 45kW CHP Unit

Small-scale biomass combined heat and power (CHP) has been a gleam in the eye of engineers and designers for 30 years. While biomass heating under the RHI has been a great success, very few biomass CHP systems have so far been developed, despite attractive ROC and RHI tariffs. That’s now changing fast.

At least 5 companies are currently offering a range of biomass CHP systems with 25 to 65kW power outputs, and around twice that output in heat. With one of these companies being Froling – the well-respected German biomass boiler company – many started to take note. The SEWF Consultancy team have been reviewing the tedchnology, and drilling deep to get to the core of the technology choices, costs and issues. Our conclusion is that while biomass CHP is not for the faint-hearted, we think that they are potentially viable and financially attractive systems, as long as you are fully aware of the key issues at stake.

Follow the Money

The design approach to most of the small-scale biomass CHP systems is fairly common. Using a high grade and consistent wood chip or wood pellet fuel, a (mainly) downdraft gasifier turns the fuel into a gas. The gas is cleaned up to remove particulates and then burned in a heavy duty engine to produce power (and waste heat). The design target of the systems is to run for 7000 to 8000 hours a year.

Biomass CHP systems currently attract biogas (mainly) and biomass heat RHI tariffs, as well as 1.9 ROCs (currently around 8.4p/kWh). Depending on whether the power generated can be used on-site (saving 10p to 12p/kWh power import costs) or just exported to the grid (obtaining around 5p/kWh), this adds up to significant income streams. Given the £175,000 to £400,000 capitals costs, these high income streams are needed to make the investment pay, but 3 to 6 year paybacks have been quoted and are in principle obtainable.

So much for the theory. What about the ‘real world’ practice and the issues a client needs to look out for?

It’s all about the fuel

A consistent problem with previous efforts to develop viable and reliable CHP systems has been inconsistent fuel quality. Most biomass systems require dry fuel – 10-15% moisture content – as well as a fine grade quality. Chip fuel that varies in moisture content or has too high a level of fines or over-size particles will cause problems with tarring up inside the gasifier and frequent halts in production. Until recently, getting consistent 10% moisture content chip was very hard to achieve. Today, the situation is different due to the proliferation of chip driers, part-funded under the RHI. With suitable chip drier and screening systems, the right fuel quality can be obtained. Several of the offerings, such as the Entrade VG system, use wood pellets to achieve the correct moisture content and quality; the only down-side being a higher fuel cost.

Reliability, Replacement and On-going support

Looking Inside the Gasifier of a Spanner CHP System

Looking Inside the Gasifier of a Spanner CHP System

Running for 8,000 hours a year can deliver really good rates of return for biomass CHP. Achieving that however requires an on-going high level of servicing and support. Our view is that expecting biomass-CHP to be a ‘plug and play’ system is probably unrealistic. A complete engine replacement or rebuild every 2 to 4 years will be needed; as will regular cleaning, replacement of filters, and daily checking of controls. The choice of servicing and support packages is hence a key decision. Going for an all-inclusive package is one route. It won’t be cheap – up to £15,000 a year for some systems – but the selling company essentially takes responsibility to for keeping the plant on-line and generating income streams. This is the main approach of Froling-British Gas, Entrade-VG and Arbor Electrogen.

The other option is to get to really know your system and build up a support team via local engineers. This is the approach taken by the Spanner CHP system. It comes with a modest warranty and more limited support from the German parent company, but the capital costs are significantly lower.

Can We Help?

CHP Ready Wood Chip

CHP Ready Wood Chip

SEWF feel that there is an exciting opportunity with biomass-CHP. It could be a really interesting investment offering great 15-20-year returns. We’ve modelled most of the main technology offerings in the market and have tested the claims of the Sales people. With our extensive chip fuel experience, we can also offer and advise on how to secure ‘CHP-ready chip’.

Can we can help you quickly assess whether biomass CHP is right for you via short site visits and quick evaluations? Drop us a line or call Stewart Boyle on 07785 726 306.

Biomass Heating a Success

Feeling The Heat

Feeling The Heat

The last three years have seen the most significant uptake of commercial and domestic wood heating since it died out as a meaningful source of space and hot water heating over 200 years ago in this country. While wood burning stoves have seen a resurgence over the last 10 years, largely due to rising oil costs and lifestyle choices, the most significant growth has been in the past 3-4 years, driven almost exclusively by the Government’s 2011 introduction of the RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) to help meet its 2020 carbon reduction commitments. With heat contributing 40% of UK carbon emissions, the UK is aiming for renewable heat to deliver 12% of total heat demand. Wood heating has been the most successful of the varied renewable heat technologies, taking 95% of the RHI budget to date. The scheme has driven £1.5 billion of investment in wood heating and created over 14,000 jobs. It has seen the installation of over 13,900 commercial and 11,000 domestic automated wood heating systems with total capacity of 2.3 GW, and a supply chain now delivering about 1 million tonnes of wood chip and 500,000 tonnes of wood pellet annually. A success by any measure, yet renewable heat meets only 1/3 of the 2020 target.

A New RHI budget – status quo till Spring 2017

In November 2015, the scheme was ‘saved’ against all odds in the governments’ comprehensive spending review and a new budget announced to carry it through to 2020. Looking at the details of the biomass proposals under a new consultation by DECC however all is not rosy in the wood heat garden. The good news is that the reprieve means ‘business as usual’ until government restructures the scheme sometime in the spring or summer next year.  However, given that the previous budget protection mechanism (degression) has all but killed off the areas of most significant growth in both the domestic and smaller non-domestic schemes, growth in new biomass systems has already slowed and much of the installer base has either disappeared or retrenched.  While there has been increased interest in systems between 200kW and 1MW, this has by no means replaced the previous growth. New RHI applications now average about 50 per month against a peak number of over 1000.

DECCs Confused RHI Proposals

So what about the future? The government released its RHI consultation last month for all supported renewable heating technologies.  The Government rightly wants to get the most ‘bang’ for its subsidy buck in terms of supporting the technologies which are going to give it the best value for money going forwards.  They also want to focus support on what they regard as ‘strategic technologies’ i.e. Those which they believe will be providing the bulk of renewable heat in 20-30 years’ time. Within this context, wood heating is currently seen by DECC as a ‘transition technology’, and not a strategic technology. This means they want to incentivise other renewable heat technologies such as heat pumps by refocusing the budget towards these. Second, while the government continues to see a role for wood heating it wants to focus the subsidy being on bigger industrial systems with high heat loads which deliver the most value. It is even willing to put in place a pre-application process to provide bigger investors with tariff certainty for the longer investment cycles these projects need. As proposals currently stand, this new approach would make investments in new installations below about 1.5-2MW with standard seasonal heat loads unattractive. Realistically most of this market would go. At a time of low oil and gas prices, there is also increasing concern that there are simply not enough larger systems out there which could be converted to deliver the renewable heat target the government wants biomass to achieve.  All told it could lead to a massive reduction in new biomass heat capacity. This begs the question – if biomass won’t meet its renewable heat target how will the government fill the gap?  The answer seems to be heat pumps.  Under the current scheme, and despite high RHI tariffs, heat pumps have not fared well.  A key factor is the more limited number of applications for heat pumps in old buildings with radiator based heating which make up the majority of the UKs existing domestic and commercial premises.  It could be argued that RHI tariffs have not been attractive enough to support conversion of these premises through underfloor heating and larger radiators for example, and allow heat pumps to make a return. Despite many positive words about heat pumps in the consultation, DECC offer very little increase in tariffs, nor do they provide any subsidy for building conversions.

Biomass has delivered – and can deliver more

In terms of £/tCO2 saved and installed heat capacity, biomass at any size provides better value for the governments subsidy buck than any other renewable heat technology. It can and should be part of the UK’s ongoing portfolio for renewable heat. If the government is serious about even attempting to meet its heat targets then it needs to re-look at the role of wood heating as part of this and the level at which it needs to support it.  The DECC assumption that the UK has very modest sustainable wood fuel resources is misplaced. The sector believes it can easily double current wood fuel supplies with increased biodiversity benefits, with much more available if energy crops are considered. The WHA and REA are strenuously lobbying DECC to make changes in their proposals.

Do it Now!

The clear message for anyone looking at biomass heating (and small scale power) as a potential long-term carbon and cost reduction strategy, is that now is the time for investing in a wood heating (or small-scale biomass CHP – see partner article) if you are looking at a system between 200 and 999kW.
Julian Morgan-Jones Visiting a 2.7MW District Heating Plant

Julian Morgan-Jones Visiting the 2.7MW District Heating Plant at Brande

South East Wood Fuels visited Denmark in early March to learn more about fuel types and biomass boiler manufacturing for large scale biomass heating projects.  The trip was organised by Justsen Energiteknik and Core Biomass, specialist biomass boiler manufacturers and their UK distributor, both with a fast growing reputation in the UK biomass sector.  We visited a 2.75MW district heating plant providing heat for 1700 homes and burning fuel at 46% moisture content,  toured the Justsen factory and met biomass expert Pieter Kofman. On arrival at Billund, the home of Legoland, we met our guide Jeppe Mikkelsen (Project Manager for Justsen) and  Pieter Kofman (Senior Consultant Danish Forestry Service) to discuss tailoring fuel specifications and boiler parameters to maximise running efficiency from a range of fuel types.  Pieter was able to share some of his 30 years’ experience producing wood fuels and researching energy generation from wood.  Interestingly woodchips are always traded by energy content in Denmark using simple formulas for coniferous or deciduous wood based on moisture content and weight. An important point to emerge is that it is critical to run the correct fuel with the right type of boiler. Mike Chapman of SEWF noted that “although this seems obvious, putting wet fuel into a boiler designed for drier fuel below 30% moisture content (MC) will drag efficiencies way down, while doing the converse means that the ceramic linings in wet fuel boilers designed to push up burn temperatures will lead to over-heating when dry fuel is used”. Matching up fuel and boiler is a growing part of what SEWF offer clients to reduce efficiency losses and running costs. Following an excellent Danish style buffet, which including a delicious chicken stew topped with pastry, we traveled to Brande to see a 2.75MW district heating plant using wet fuel to power a Justsen boiler with air preheating.  We arrived just in time to see the daily delivery of 20 tons of wet chips being tipped into the silo before embarking on tour of the plant.  From the spotless control room we were able to view all aspects of the district heating arrangements for the 1700 homes connected in the town, our guide proudly explained that the plant was operating at 114% efficiency (achieved through a condenser recovering energy from flue gases).   The plant was considered quite small by local standards and was chosen because it was most comparable with the largest systems currently being installed in the UK, we thought it was huge. From Brande we traveled through the wintry Danish countryside to Aarhus spotting the now characteristic flue in each town associated with biomass heating plants and funny looking stacks of tree tops and chip wood on the edge of fields ready for chipping. At 8am next morning we were met by Claus and Lars Justsen at their factory.  Justsen are a family owned and run business, in operation since 1960, they produce specialized, bespoke systems ranging in size from 1MW -15MW.  A tour of the factory was followed by a seminar on the properties of varying fuel types and the design specifics of Justsens Argus Flex boiler range.  We were hugely impressed by the level of expertise and innovation, and ability to translate this through the factory floor into bespoke plants matching the specific requirements of particular circumstances.  Our visit ended with a discussion about future prospects for biomass heating in the UK and the Renewable Heating Incentive.  With proposed tariffs appearing to favour larger more robust systems, and the ability of the Justsen Range to burn a wide range of fuel types we expect to see more of the Justsen brand in the UK in the future.

Employment in the Biomass Industry rises 19%

Recent figures from the Renewable Energy Association show significant increases in the number of renewable energy sector jobs in 2013-14, with the most significant improvement in the biomass sector where there has been a 19% rise. Employment in the biomass boiler installation and servicing sector grew 19.3% from 4,510 to 5,379, while employment in biomass production grew 10.6% from 8,960 to 9,913.

Julian Morgan-Jones, MD of South East Wood Fuels Ltd and Chairman of the Wood Heat Association said “we very much welcome the publication of these figures which show the increasing importance of the biomass sector to local UK economies. We are equally pleased and proud that this reflects the increased use of low carbon biomass heating for private, commercial and public sector buildings and is another step to meeting the UKs’ carbon reduction targets”.