Can the UK meet the demand for biomass?
According to statistics issued by DECC, around 19,000 homes in the UK make the decision to install a wood burning stove every month. Great news for the environment as burning wood based biomass fuels offers a carbon neutral, or at worst, a carbon lean alternative to highly polluting fossil fuels. The market for biomass boilers designed to replace oil and/or solid fuel fired appliances continues to grow in the UK with the widening of the RHI scheme to domestic households. The question increasingly being asked is – can the UK meet the demand for biomass?
A local UK biomass industry
There is concern that the wood supply will not be able to meet this demand, now and in the future. Indeed thousands of tons of firewod and wood pellets, all too often with dubious provenance, are imported into the UK every year to meet the growing demand for biomass fuels. Given this scenario surely the answer to our question must be a resounding no. In fact, though there are many factors that affect the answer to this question – can the UK meet the demand for biomass? the short answer is yes, there is enough wood for a local UK biomass industry.
Wood burning stoves and biomass boilers have been used for a long time in Scandinavian countries, Austria, Germany and Italy. These countries have a lot of woodland because managed forestry has continued to be a priority, and wood a valued natural resource. Clearly if we in the UK are to meet the growing demand for wood based biomass fuels then we need to look closely at our neighbours. One of the great lessons we can take from these countries is how well microgeneration works, with individuals and communities taking responsiblity for their local, sustainable fuel supply.
We can apply a similar model to the UK, where we have regions with extensive woodland in varying degrees of management as well as space to continue to grow wood crops for the future. Austria gets around 40% of its heat from biomass; we get less than 4% at the moment, although this is rising. We need to get to around 15% though to make a meaningful contribution to hitting our 2020 carbon reduction commitments as legislated in the Climate Change Act 2008. Climate change is increasingly becoming a major factor in how national governments set their agendas.
Increasing our woodland management to harvest in a sustainable way keeps woodlands healthy. Managed woodland enables trees to grow to full size and absorb more CO2 from the air than trees growing too close together, strangled by their proximity and shading. More light and more space increases biodiversity and offers greater potential for recreational pursuits.
The interest in and the skills and expertise in woodland management are growing once again and this can only be a good thing, for biodiversity, carbon reduction and a local biomass energy industry.
The golden age of fossil fuels is coming to an end, not as used to be thought because of dwindling reserves – it seems that human ingenuity knows no bounds when it comes to extraction of fossil fuels from impossible places. Increasing cost pressures on prices, a growing awareness of the environmental damage and the vulnerability of supply due to wars and upheaval is slowly leading to a ground swell of opinion for change. Denmark has already announced a total ban on coal in 2025, Norway looks as it will follow suit and Germany is actively debating the issue. Fossil fuels are getting more noticeably expensive and this is set to get worse, as extraction gets more costly and this increased cost is passed on to the consumer. Fossil fuels especially oil and gas need to be processed and then travel great distances, from Russia, Nigeria and the Middle East so the carbon footprint is large before it even gets to the end user. Using a benchmark of 100 for greenhouse gas emissions during the production and supply of fossil fuels, wood pellets grown and harvested in the UK come in at around 4 on average.
Biomass really does grow on trees!
Biomass still has a way to go in the UK. At the moment it could be argued that getting cheap imported pellets from countries such as Finland is actually a lower carbon solution than growing, harvesting and processing wood in the UK. In Finland there are wood pellet plants that use the twigs and leaves to generate electricity in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant, in order to process pellets; so a truly low carbon if not carbon neutral solution. The slow boat to the UK can then give less of a carbon footprint than transporting lorry loads of pellets from Scotland to the Midlands or elsewhere in Britain. The way to challenge that is the encouragement of locally based biomass production and a local supply chain.
The Scandinavians are doing it better because they have been doing it longer. Now fossil fuels are increasingly seen as damaging to the environment, we need to encourage and grow the UK biomass industry. With the introduction and increasing take-up of the Renewable Heat Incentive it makes more than sound financial sense for many people to use high efficiency log, chip or pellet boilers. The good news is that biomass really does grow on trees, so we can make the most of this sustainable and low carbon energy source, now and in the future, as a real alternative to fossil fuels for domestic and community heating. Can the UK meet the demand for biomass? The answer is a definitive YES!