Linda Taylor, Group Marketing Director, AMP Clean Energy
A year ago, I optimistically predicated that 2019 would be a break-through year for biomass. Whilst evidence of biomass’ potential to help meet the UK’s renewable heat targets mounted during the year, this was not fully recognised and capitalised upon. Indeed, we still have no news on a possible extension or replacement of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which has been very successful in decarbonising a range of homes, businesses and public sector organisations. With the UK still woefully off-track in meeting its heat decarbonisation targets, it really is now or never for the biomass heat industry.
A raft of esteemed publications from the likes of the Committee on Climate Change and the IEA stated that biomass had an important role to play in the transition to a low carbon economy. The REA completed a bioenergy review which stressed that upscaling biomass was key to achieving heat decarbonisation.
2019 was also the year that the biomass heat industry came together and spoke with one voice about the benefits of biomass. The Biomass Heat Works campaign, led by the UK Pellet Council (UKPC) and the Wood Heat Association (WHA) , was launched to call on the Government to include biomass heat in future energy policy. The industry will unite around this message when the WHA and UKPC once again join forces to host a joint conference in April.
In the face of such persuasive evidence and campaigning why have we not seen the biomass heat industry grow?
One reason is that biomass has always faced criticism in some circles over its sustainability credentials, unfairly tarred with the label ‘dirtier than coal’. In the UK there are strict and comprehensive sustainability management systems which ensure that biomass leads to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while complying with wider sustainability objectives. Furthermore, reputable organisations, including the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have said that properly managed forest biomass resources are ‘low carbon.’
Biomass has also been in the firing line over air quality issues which comes back to the negative connotations of burning wood. The reality is that modern biomass boilers have a much better air quality performance record than traditional wood burning methods. Such boilers are already regulated for particulate emissions levels under the RHI, which also builds air quality into the planning process. In comparison, oil and coal boilers are not assessed or regulated in any way. This includes large industrial users with Heavy Fuel Oil.
One thing which can’t be disputed is that biomass delivers carbon reductions. When replacing oil or electric heating greenhouse gas savings from biomass can be as high as 90%. Even displacing natural gas emissions savings of between 73-90% can be achieved. Biomass heat has been the most successful technology under the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) for decarbonising the public sector, agriculture, leisure, schools and academies as well as care homes. In the agricultural sector, biomass use for heating has grown considerably in the last ten years and now makes up 35% of energy use.
The fate of the industry now lays with the UK government who must decide whether they want to capitalise on biomass heat. If they do, bold and innovative policy measures which constrain the continued use of fossil fuels for heating and encourage the update of renewable alternatives, are urgently needed. The UK biomass heat market, which is well established and supported by robust supply chains, is ready and able to respond to increasing demand. Here’s hoping that 2020 is the year we see the potential of biomass being put into practice.