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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.