Paper considers the future of biomass heating in the U.K.

By Katie Fletcher | February 09, 2015

CPL Industries, a distributor of wood pellet heating solutions in the U.K., published a paper exploring the benefits of incorporating biomass into long-term heating strategies for 2020 and beyond. The paper specifies a long-term biomass heating sector should reflect on the progress made to date, as well as constraints in the existing plans for heat decarbonization, which according to the paper, may necessitate a re-evaluation of the role of biomass for heat generation. 

In the U.K., legally binding targets are set to deliver an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Last October this goal was narrowed by indicating half of that reduction goal, or 40 percent, relative to 1990 levels are to be met by 2030. Currently, bioenergy usage is expected to play a large role in off-gas grid heating up to 2020, but becomes less certain in the long term.

The role of biomass heating remains uncertain with constraints such as limited forest area for the U.K.’s domestic forest biomass supply and lack of storage and transport facilities. Internationally biomass competes with alternative land-use options, such as food production. Another constraint is associated with direct and indirect land use change (ILUC), which according to the paper, in some cases could eliminate GHG savings and harm biodiversity. The U.K. Government’s Bioenergy Strategy published in April 2012, suggests biomass will only serve as a transitional role in the heating sector. Even so, the paper identifies various benefits of biomass as a low-carbon heat option.

Existing approaches to heat decarbonization are based on the electricity grid and electrification of much of U.K.’s heat requirements. If these approaches were instated a larger and much cleaner grid would be required by 2050, which the report concludes may prove to be more expensive and challenging than first thought. Thus, the report indicates that given the uncertainty over the likely availability of low-carbon electricity, accompanied by the need to meet the requirements of a wide range of applications and desire for consumer choice, a more mixed technology approach in the heating market may be essential after 2020.

The paper explores five main reasons driving an increase in biomass heating: growing adoption and falling costs, retrofit ready, wider energy system benefits, improved sustainability and technology innovation.

Under the renewable heat incentive (RHI) the volume of installations has increased, and market growth has triggered capital cost reduction. The nondomestic RHI was implemented in 2011, and last April a domestic scheme became available. Domestically, biomass has comprised 56 percent of RHI applications, and in the commercial sector the preference for biomass over alternatives has been even more evident with 95 percent of nondomestic RHI installations biomass boilers.

Biomass systems are increasing and as a result decreasing costs. According to the paper, even though pellet prices are expected to rise, the capital cost reductions associated with scaling equipment manufacturing installation are leading to decreasing lifecycle costs. Across the supply chain lifecycle costs are expected to fall by 14 percent for small-scale systems and 12 percent for larger systems by 2050, based on modeling by the Low Carbon Innovation Coordination Group. In 2014 this cost is a little under £80 ($122) per MWh for domestic and a little over £80 per MWh for nondomestic.

Biomass heating systems are retrofit ready, and suitable from a cost and carbon standpoint for a huge variety of off-grid buildings. However, the existing Department of Energy and Climate Change Heat Strategy does not foresee biomass meeting a significant proportion of space and water heating demand towards the 2050 goal, rather it anticipates natural gas. Many buildings are projected to be served by electric heat pumps. The paper indicates, however, with the range of requirements and heating profiles biomass can be an appropriate source of heat in many buildings.

The third benefit the paper explains is that a portfolio of heating technologies could alleviate stress on the grid and lower costs for electric-heat consumers. The paper also includes data explaining the relationship between electricity grid emission factors and carbon emission of heat for different heating types. At a 2014 emissions factor of 0.504 kilogram of CO2 emissions per kWh of electricity consumed domestically, heat pumps will typically emit between 0.22 and 0.31 kgCO2e per kWh, compared to 0.03 to 0.05 kgCO2e per kWh for sustainably sourced wood pellets. Another impacting electricity factor is the anticipated wider roll out of time-of-use tariffs may result in fluctuating electricity prices.

Sustainability plays a crucial role in the future of bioenergy resources in the U.K. How to improve sustainability issues are continuously worked on by various entities, and tools and standards are developed to tackle key issues, including reporting, resource management and ILUC change, in order to use greater volumes of biomass sustainably. One example of this in the paper is after autumn 2015 all biomass users claiming RHI for their installation will have to demonstrate that the fuel meets sustainability criteria addressing GHG emission and land use practices. Lifecycle GHG emissions must not exceed 125.8 grams per kWh of heat produced or 60 percent of the EU fossil fuel average.

 Finally, there are technologies, such as torrefaction, pyrolysis and gasification, which can be unlocked for additional feedstock opportunities.  The paper also discussed the methodological innovation of biomass cascading, which refers to using the biomass resource more than once.

The paper points to bioenergy as an essential component in U.K.’s future low-carbon economy, but after 2020 biomass in heating applications is not suggested to have a significant role, according to current policy. However, this report highlights emerging factors that suggest biomass could be a long-term, low-carbon heating technology in many applications.

A full PDF of the paper produced collaboratively with Ecuity Consulting can be found here.