My biomass breakfast or how I learned to love wood pellets
Have you ever witnessed the delivery of wood pellets to an on-site boiler? I thought not.
Well, you are fortunate that your blogger here was invited to a “Cool Heating Biomass Breakfast” at the Maidenhead Rugby Club, no less, not to view some rugged males battling it out but to hear from firms active in biomass. The event was organized by the Renewable Energy Association and sponsored by Forever Fuels, a leading UK supplier of wood pellets, and the firm had arranged for a truck to deliver wood pellets during our visit.
What was “cool” about this event? Well, I can report that it was pretty cool in that I did not see a single pellet. It was exactly like the delivery of heating oil: you see a big truck, you might see some hoses hooked up to a building – and that’s it. The operation is clean and quick. For minor drama, you could observe an air bag on the ground siphoning off any extra dust in the pellets – and inflating with air intake. Otherwise it was a non-event. And I see that as a huge advantage: businesses and homeowners want the least disruption possible, whether they’re getting renewable or fossil fuel deliveries.
Sorry, I should have defined a wood pellet. These are tiny wood bits formed from dried and compressed wood fibre or sawdust. The drying process is important in achieving the desired density. All the wood is said to come from sustainably-managed forests and the pellets produce minimal ash, and burn clean enough to be suitable for Smoke Control Areas, when used in a suitable appliance. Compared to traditional wood heating, they require less space and no manual handling, as the pellets can be pumped directly into the fuel store, as I observed at the Rugby Club, or delivered in a bag.
So what is new here? In a nutshell, the Renewable Heat Incentive. We all know that UK houses are hopeless, losing heat through under-insulated roofs and windows and burning up fossil fuels at a galactic rate.
Enter wood pellets, which have actually been on the scene for years though without the high visibility of wind or solar. In fact, they are already big business. According to the Forestry Commission, which, in consultation with the Expert Group on Timber & Trade Statistics, has introduced an annual survey of UK wood pellet and briquette production from 2009, a total of 197 thousand tonnes of wood pellets and briquettes are estimated to have been made in the UK in 2010. This represents an increase of 67% from the 2009 estimate of 118 thousand tonnes. And, with the imminent start of the RHI, due to become much bigger – the sector, that is, not the actual pellets.
At the seminar, Stewart Boyle, representing the REA, said that the UK’s heat market is currently dominated by gas at 69%, followed by oil at 10%, with electricity making up the rest.
“The RHI will give roughly a 12% rate of return,” Boyle said. “It is paid to the owner of the boiler for 20 years on the metered heat output.” Meters are mandatory to take advantage of the RHI. The Forestry Commission, no less, believes that 10% of all UK heating could come from (sustainable) wood.
The RHI, as you may know, while praised as being the first financial support scheme for renewable heat of its kind in the world, has been criticised for focusing on non-domestic use to start with, delaying coverage of domestic use. That is, it is a two-phase approach, targeted first at the big heat users in the industrial, business and public sectors, which are said to contribute 38% of the UK’s carbon emissions. Under this phase, however, households will get support of around £15 million through the Renewable Heat Premium Payment.
The second phase of the RHI scheme will see households moved to the same form of long-term tariff support offered to the non-domestic sector in the first phase. This transition will be timed to align with the Green Deal, which is intended to be introduced in October 2012.
Bruno Prior, CEO of Forever Fuels, said that his company had celebrated the RHI with new investment of £1 million in five distribution depots, and a further £1 million in seven pellet-delivery vehicles. He focuses on biomass for heating, arguing that biomass for electricity is not efficient. “Modern gas and biomass boilers are typically around 90% efficient,” he said. “If we want to make the most of our natural resources, we should use gas to make electricity and biomass to produce heat.”
We also heard from Christine Thomas of Wood Energy Limited, a division of RES – Renewable Energy Systems. Her company has 270 projects on the go, including schools and hospitals – as well as County Hall in Exeter which embraced wood heating in 2009.
To reassure anyone worried that trees are getting cut down, you should know we are talking about “modern wood heating” from sustainable sources. To reassure the doubters, Chris Charlton was there from the Forestry Commission. He assured us that wood pellets – and wood chips, a variation on pellets - are made to FSC – Forest Stewardship Council – standards. This is a wood-labelling scheme and you can read about their latest standards here - http://www.fsc-uk.org/?p=2070 – but in a nutshell we’re talking about sustainable forests.
And there is also a European scheme called ENplus that certifies producers of wood pellets.
The cost of wood is current low compared to oil and gas, but as with these the trend is up, due to higher transport costs and other factors.
Bruno Prior of Forever Fuels believes that the non-domestic market is likely to be most significant, and not just because of the RHI delaying domestic use. “Community schemes may offer the best non-domestic option,” he said.
So, dear reader, any ideas you have about wood heating being primitive or earth destroying should be reviewed. With a modern biomass boiler, wood pellets and chips may be the most energy efficient choice. Sawdust may not be glamorous but it may help us meet our emissions targets.
Posted 23/06/2011 by Elizabeth Block
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