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Looking Ahead To The Biomass Revolution

December 18, 2012 by  
Filed under Featured Posts, Green Living

biomassIt seems like every year or so we hear of a fantastic new technology that is set to revolutionise the energy world.  Yet, as the research continues and the results are revealed to the general public, rarely does the reality live up to the hype.  The latest technology that is currently making a stir is biomass boilers, which are being promoted as eco-friendly, renewable and also cost effective.  So what exactly are biomass boilers and how do they work?

Understanding the technology

Whilst there several types of biomass boilers, which work in much the same way; it is the pellet-fired systems that are the most efficient types.  These boilers, as the name suggests, burn pellets that are made from condensed wood, to heat water in a central heating system.  The system works by feeding the pellets from a silo type storage unit onto a conveyor belt.  From there the pellets are pushed into the burning area where they are heated by what is essentially an oversized hair dryer.  The fan unit creates enough heat to ignite the pellets without the need of a flame.  Operation of the boiler is fully automated, with inbuilt sensors measuring when more fuel is required.  The only manual work involved is when the storage unit needs refilling with pellets. 

Environmental benefits

The phrase biomass of course relates to any energy source that is derived from living or dead organic materials.  This can incorporate a variety of materials, including sugar cane, palm oils, straw and of course wood.

Whilst it takes millions of years for fossil fuels to form, biomass energy sources are constantly being replenished.  Even wood fuel, which is the biomass source that takes the longest to replenish, only takes a few years as the trees grow to the appropriate size.  As long as the wood is being sourced from managed woodland, it is entirely sustainable.  The fact that these trees are being grown for the purpose of fuel ensures a ‘closed carbon cycle’, in which they absorb as much CO2 as is released by the trees being burnt in the boilers.

There are however some CO2 emissions created during the processing of the trees and also transportation.  Even so, research suggests that the net emissions for boilers that use wood pellets are less than 10% than heating systems that use of fossil fuels.

Considering the costs

Having done some research in what it will cost to install and run a biomass heating system in a residential property, it is currently impossible to give accurate figures.  This is because, having spoken to Harrogate based business Think Renewables Energy, who specialise in biomass boilers amongst other green energy systems, I was told that as yet The Government have not yet set in place subsidised tariffs.  Whilst this is on the agenda as part of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), it won’t be until early 2013 before residential tariffs are finalised.

However, subsidised tariffs are already in place for commercial biomass boilers and offer a real opportunity for businesses to reduce heating costs, whilst doing their bit for the environment.  Exactly what sized boiler you will require will obviously depend on the size and fuel usage of your property, with commercial solutions starting at 50kW.  The initial expense of installing a 50kW boiler is about £100,000, which will appear restrictive to many businesses.  However, providers such as Think Renewables Energy are providing a workaround for businesses that do not have the available cash to buy a biomass boiler outright, by offering free installation.  The boiler of course still belongs to the company, with the agreement being that they have a contract to supply you with the pellets to fuel the system.

In terms of running costs, wood pellets actually work out cheaper than any traditional fossil fuels cost, as the table below shows.

Fuel Price Per Unit kWh Per Unit Pence Per kWh
Wood Pellets £195/tonne 4,800kWh/t 4.1p/kWh
Natural Gas 4.3p/kWh 1 4.3p/kWh
Heating Oil 62.0p/ltr 10kWh/ltr 6.2/kWh
LPG (Bulk) 49.0p/ltr 6.6kWh/ltr 7.4p/kWh
Electricity 12.0p/kWh 1 12.0p/kWh


As you can see, the savings to be made on the natural gas systems which are most commonly used is minimal.  However, with the natural gas being a finite resource, the cost of using it to heat a property is only going to increase as the available amounts reduce.  In comparison, there is a realistic chance that biomass fuels, such as wooden pellets, will actually reduce in price as production techniques are improved.

Moving forwards

As it stands, there is a lot to be said for the installation of biomass boilers in commercial properties.  Exactly how these benefits will translate in a residential setting remains to be seen.  However, with The Government fully committed to the move towards cleaner and sustainable energy, it is fair to expect that tariffs for smaller heating systems will be put in place to give homeowners a financial incentive to make the switch.  For now, we will just have to bide our time, but it does appear that this new route to harness the power of biomass will actually live up to the initial hype.  Fingers crossed!

Andrew Jackson is a husband and father, who makes every effort to run a green and sustainable home and is very much looking forwards to installing a biomass boiler in his property.  Andrew would like to thank Jamie at Think Renewables Energy for his time and the information that he provided for this piece.

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