Focus has turned to the future of biomass in recent times. Could it be providing a more significant part of our energy needs, not only in localised situations such as offices and homes, but also on a grander scale with large power stations fuelled by wood burning? The truth is, it’s not all good news for the industry – there have been rumblings the Renewable Heat Incentive is only benefiting rich landowners and that it could even end up costing UK tax payers billions in subsidies.
What is Biomass?
Biomass is fuel derived from a wide variety of organic material that includes scrap lumber, crops and the debris from forests, as well as waste products such as manure. Rather than putting these waste products in landfills or burning them away on open ground, biomass fuels can be used to create heat and electricity on both small and large scales.
In large biomass power stations, the burning of the waste is used to create steam that then drives a turbine and produces electricity and, for many, it is seen as the ideal replacement for our coal fired stations – a clean, renewable energy source that could have a substantial impact on our sustainable power production.
Can We Fire Up Large Scale Biomass?
According to energy chief executive Dorothy Thompson in the Telegraph recently, burning waste is a more efficient way to produce energy and could well be the prime renewable source of the future. The problem that biomass often suffers from, especially on a grand scale, is that it is associated with the cutting down of forests to provide the wood needs to be burned. This is not the case as wood is only taken from sustainable forests and a large amount of the biomass created comes from off cuts and debris that would otherwise be left to rot.
Another issue is whether transporting the fuel to the energy plants is a good way for the UK to reduce its carbon footprint. Whilst the actual process of burning and creating electricity in a large power station is attractive, you need to take into account the fuel costs of transportation and the footprint created in gathering and processing the biomass in the first place.
These environmental credentials are the things that currently dog a company like Drax which is working in Yorkshire to convert units to operate on biomass. In relation to coal transportation, which these stations are largely replacing, the savings of 80% may at first seem creditable and a recent commissioned report has suggested that biomass can produce more overall savings than other renewables such as wind.
The jury is still out on biomass on a large, industrial scale and there are many who believe, particularly in the Government, that it is more suited as a transitional technology, cutting down our emissions whilst reducing our reliance on fossil fuels such as coal.
Is Biomass as efficient as we think?
The Renewable Heat Incentive was introduced to encourage businesses to take up and install more sustainable energy sources. It was later expanded to include domestic premises and covers biomass boilers, air and ground heat pumps and solar thermal. Whilst on the surface all seems well with this kind of subsidy, a recent report by the Department of Energy and Climate Change has raised doubt on whether biomass is as green as we all think and whether it is contributing properly to our reduction in carbon emissions.
Biomass accounts for the vast majority of payments under the RHI but the technology is now thought to be between 10 and 20% less effective than at first thought. This is bad news for the government who have pushed biomass as one of the leading technologies that can help the UK reach their targets for 2020.
Added to this is the suspicion that payments under the RHI are generally going to wealthy landowners who are benefiting unduly from this particular subsidy. According to Simon Lomax from the Kensa Group: “It is concerning that government has belatedly recognised that many biomass installations will seemingly not contribute to its renewable energy targets despite billions of pounds of public money being committed via the RHI.”
Is Biomass Benefitting the Rich?
A slightly more disturbing news story this year came from the Mirror which suggests that biomass is largely benefiting rich landowners and property tycoons rather than other businesses and domestic homes. The complaint is that whilst many of us are living in fuel poverty and having difficulty in making ends meet, the rich are getting a combined guaranteed income that could reach in excess of £10 billion over the next 20 years. The newspaper cites the owner of a manor house who invested £95,000 to heat his home and stables and who is expected to receive profits from the RHI of around £23,000 a year.
The Future of Biomass
There’s no doubt that if you have the money for the initial investment, having a biomass boiler installed to heat your property can lead to a pretty good return on investment over the 20 to 25 year life of the device. There may well be a change of heart from the government in the future however (though current installations have their RHI payment guaranteed), influenced more by the notion that they are not as efficient as previously thought. The case of biomass of course raises that perennial question as to whether renewables can grow and develop without the input of government subsidies that make them more favourable for homes and businesses alike.