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Biomass heating 

Summary notes for businesses

What is biomass heating?


Biomass heating generally refers to the use of solid biomass materials to produce heat for space
or process heating applications. The most common technology for this use is a boiler that uses
the relatively simple process of combustion to convert the energy in the biomass material to heat
water (the heating medium). Systems can range in size from as low as 15kW to >5MW of rated
thermal capacity. Applications can vary accordingly from domestic room heaters and boilers,
through to lead heating plant for very large applications such as hospitals, nurseries, factories
etc.

Biomass is a low-carbon source of renewable energy as the carbon dioxide emitted when the
material is combusted is no more than that absorbed by it in its lifetime as living biomass. Also,
fresh growth of new biomass material can recapture the carbon dioxide emitted via
photosynthesis. While there are some net CO2 emissions from using biomass for heating, the
considerable body of publicly available research indicates that using solid biomass for heating
typically gives reductions in carbon emissions of at least 90% relative to using fossil fuel heating
systems, even when these net emissions have been taken into consideration.

How does biomass heating work?


Biomass heating works in a similar way to conventional, fossil fuel heating systems. Fuel is burnt
in a combustion chamber and the hot gases given off transfer heat to a heating medium (water)
via internal heat exchangers. The heated water is then used to circulate heat to the areas in
which it is needed. In other circumstances, hot air is used for space heating directly. The main
difference between biomass heating and conventional heating is that the fuels are almost always
solid. Therefore, the boiler units themselves are required to be bigger and some form of on site
fuel storage and transfer system (e.g. a bunker and auger system) is required. Biomass for
heating is a mature, proven technology and has been used successfully and extensively for many
years in countries such as Austria, Finland and Denmark.

What sort of fuel is used and where does it come from?


The most commonly used sources of biomass heating fuels are virgin wood, certain energy crops,
clean industrial residues and certain agricultural residues. Fuel can come in highly processed
formats (such as wood pellets), through to almost freshly felled wood logs. Fuel is normally
provided by one or more dedicated suppliers, but on-site materials can also be used in some
situations, such as on rural estates or at factories.

There is already a wide range of biomass fuel suppliers in the UK. These range from large
organisations (such as forestry or recycled wood contractors) through to specialist fuel brokerage
companies that draw on biomass feedstocks from a variety of sources (and take responsibility for
fuel grading and conditioning). There are also some very small companies that can supply
sufficient quantities for a few small installations located relatively locally, via existing woodlands
or with excess stock from other projects.

Numerous regional organisations have been set up to help provide information on the supply of
biomass fuel. Nationally, the Biomass Energy Centre (connected to the Forestry Commission) has
a coordinating and information-provision role to help potential customers find fuel for systems.
Numerous studies have identified that there are large quantities of potentially suitable material
for biomass fuel available in the UK today, and also significant potential for further growth.
Estimates range up to almost 100TWh by 2020.

The key characteristics of a biomass fuel include its moisture content, which affects its energy
content (the calorific value), and the particle size/grade. Factors that affect fuel costs include the
type of fuel and its associated market availability, the quality of the fuel, the form the fuel is
delivered in, and the proximity of the fuel source to the point of use.

Biomass plant can vary from small, manually-fed systems with few controls, to fully automatic
systems with advanced controls and remote monitoring. The specific choice of system is
primarily dependent upon:

1. The type of fuel to be used (i.e. the size of individual fuel pieces, its original source and key
characteristics such as moisture content).
2. The degree of automation and sophistication of control required (with costs varying
accordingly).

Considerations for businesses


Biomass can offer a source of lower-cost heating, especially when compared with expensive
heating fuels such as oil, LPG or electricity. Several hundred systems have already been
installed throughout the UK and are delivering cost and sustainability benefits to the
organisations using them. As a source of low-carbon, renewable heat, biomass could help
organisations meet targets on reducing carbon emissions and increased use of renewable energy.
The Carbon Trust has identified three key considerations to maximise the chances of
implementing a cost effective and successfully operating system:

• Sizing – due to the capital premium of biomass heating equipment it is very important to
optimise the size of the biomass element of a system relative to the annual heat loads of
the site.
• Fuel storage and handling – a well designed and implemented solution for receiving,
storing and handling fuel at the site will pay dividends over the lifetime of the project.
• Fuel to equipment matching – it is vital to secure a supply of fuel that is within the
required operational parameters for the equipment in which it is intended to be used.

Further information
The Carbon Trust has also developed a four-stage process to guide potential users through the
processes of assessing the feasibility, design, procurement, implementation and successful
operation of a biomass heating system. The details of this are contained within the Carbon
Trust’s publication: Biomass Heating: a practical guide for potential users. This is available to
download for free from www.carbontrust.co.uk/biomass. Alternatively, hard copies can also be
ordered there too.
The Carbon Trust is funded by the Department for Environment and Climate Change (DECC),
the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), the Scottish Government, the Welsh
Assembly Government and Invest Northern Ireland.

Whilst reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that the information contained within this publication
is correct, the authors, the Carbon Trust, its agents, contractors and sub-contractors give no warranty
and make no representation as to its accuracy and accept no liability for any errors or omissions.

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Company number 4190230 with its Registered Office at: 6th Floor, 5 New Street Square, London, EC4A 3BF.