Biomass – A Burning Matter

Biomass is indeed a burning matter. Many articles state the same thing, maintaining that a biomass system is good for any business, but that is not always the case – biomass is not for everyone. If you are considering a biomass project, you should read the following issues raised in this article before making a decision to purchase.

What are biomass boilers?

A biomass boiler generates heat, hot water or steam through burning wood pellets, chips, logs or other similar organic material.

It is a common misconception that there is no such thing as a biomass steam boiler, however, there is no magic to it, biomass is merely another solid fuel and there is absolutely no reason why it can’t be used to raise steam. Steam is an amazing method of transferring heat energy in your process. If you’re looking for a biomass-fired steam boiler, consult any of the specialist steam boiler manufacturers.

Biomass, particularly wood based fuel, is readily available and it is renewable. More people in the world use wood for heating and cooking than any other fuel and unlike any other fuel it really does “grow on trees”!

Will it save my business money?

The capital cost of installing biomass is several times that of a fossil fuel plant however….

There are a number of financial arguments and arrangements that can make the installation of a biomass boiler at worst cost neutral and at best a financial gain. This would come from assistance from Government schemes, such as:

Renewable Heat Incentive

The Non-Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive is a government-funded financial incentive to encourage the use of environmental, sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.

In general terms, a company receives the payments for 20 years in return for generating renewable energy. These payments will help to offset the higher initial costs of installation and some of the ongoing fuel costs. It also goes towards reducing the UK’s carbon emissions. The actual payback period for the project will depend heavily on how you use your boiler, therefore, could be anything from 2 – 20 years. Consult with potential equipment suppliers to ascertain a realistic estimate of the payback period before you invest too much time in a potentially uneconomical project.

Which fuel should I use?

As mentioned before, biomass is a solid fuel. Like any fuel, it will need to be transported to your site and similarly to coal, oil or LPG it will need to be stored close to the boiler plant. In addition it will need to be ordered in regularly from a supplier. Before considering what size of boiler would meet the needs of your process, stop and consider the requirements for ordering, delivery and storage. If you currently have LPG tanks or an oil tank you will know very well the issues involved in continuity of fuel supply. The same will apply to biomass, however, it does not constitute exactly the same fire risk.

The questions that need to be asked are:

  1. Is the fuel widely available with a range of potential suppliers? If there is only one source of fuel, you are exposed to risks such as crop failure or the supplier going out of business leaving you with no fuel, so contingency plans must be in place.
  2. How much fuel can I conveniently store on site?
  3. Is that quantity sufficient to maintain fuel supply continuity for a reasonable period of heavy demand?
  4. Can the delivery vehicle gain easy access to the store without disruption to other activities on site?
  5. Is there somebody on site to ensure that the fuel is ordered in good time, is delivered when needed and that the fuel is properly offloaded and stored?
  6. Unlike oil, gas or LPG, biomass generates ash which needs to be removed from site. Is there someone available to do this?
  7. Is the filling point close enough to the fuel store and is the fuel store close enough to the boiler?
  8. Is the fuel of a suitable and consistent quality?

If more people start installing biomass systems because of the RHI, won’t the fuel prices rocket?

To get the right grade of fuel for your boiler is paramount. The effective and efficient operation of plant has to be priority in a cost conscious business operation. There are, and will be, suppliers who will offer fuel that is not of the best quality and we should consider what they have to offer as unacceptable. There are for example, EN standards for wood pellets and if that is what is specified by the boiler manufacturer then that is what you should use. It may be tempting to buy a cheaper fuel but ask yourself why is it cheaper? After all you wouldn’t put paraffin in your car just because it is cheaper, and then complain to the makers when it broke down, would you?

With the increase in demand for wood pellets the number of manufacturers and distributers has increased in the UK over the last 7 years. There are now four manufacturers registered as ENplus A1 producers and there has been a significant increase in the distribution network.

With time, the market should mature, hopefully with competition bringing the prices down. However, there is only so much biomass in the world, and it will be in great demand: Power plants will consume huge quantities of biomass fuel. This can be offset by dedicated planting and the expansion of forested land, for example, has to be good for the environment.

Who should consider a biomass boiler installation?

  1. New build projects that can “design in” a biomass plant at the outset.
  2. Larger developments with central plant room.
  3. Schools, Hospitals, Government and other institutional properties.
  4. Housing associations.
  5. Any company owner who is likely to retain ownership of the building or site for the 20 year period of the RHI.
  6. A company owner who has the space to install a system (not always ideal for densely populated inner city areas).

By-products and the potential for pollution

This is a knotty question as there are a few areas in the UK where the products of combustion are considered to be a potential source of pollution. This is a result of the level of fine particulates emitted from the flue. However this can be controlled using ceramic filter technology. The other by-product is ash. Wood ash is generally considered as inert and non-polluting which means it can be accepted as landfill.

Summary

Biomass is many things but it is not the be all and end all for commercial or industrial heating. As always it is ‘horses for courses’ and what is right for one business, may not be for another. Some of the reasons for not choosing biomass are outlined above. However, it is renewable energy from a sustainable source which has benefits for future generations, something that the government is actively encouraging with the RHI. Biomass, and in particular wood pellets, is a ‘clean’ fuel, the storage and use of which will not pollute.

The future

As the market matures, much of the less efficient equipment that is being manufactured will fall by the wayside as will the fuel suppliers that are not complying with acceptable standards. This is always a natural, almost evolutionary, process which will mean that in the not too distant future, the end users will have efficient and effective boilers producing heat for their process.

Having carefully considered all of these factors, if you believe biomass can be beneficial to your business, then act now whilst the paybacks are most favourable.