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Last edited 15 Dec 2021
Biomass (or bio-feedstock) is a generic term referring to organic materials that can be used as fuels. Biomass differs from fossil fuels because of the timescale required for replacement. Whilst both take carbon out of the environment during their creation, before releasing it when used as a fuel, fossil fuels deplete faster than they are replaced and so are not sustainable whereas biomass can be replaced relatively quickly and so may be considered 'carbon neutral'.
Solid bioenergy options include woodchips and pellets. Using these types of biomass fuel as a heating source is well established across Europe and the UK. The use of biomass as an energy source is traditionally through combustion within a biomass boiler, providing hot water. This technology can be a central boiler supplying heat via district heating or individual biomass stoves or boilers in each property.
Biomass fuel can also be used to generate power through Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology. Small scale biomass CHP systems are in development, but they are still considered to be an emerging technology. The specific requirements of a biomass CHP system are similar to a biomass boiler, with the notable difference being additional space requirements, particularly height.
 Technical Information
- The following figures can be used to determine the approximate storage area required (the actual volume will depend on the moisture content of the fuel):
- Storing more than two months supply is not recommended because of potential problems with decay and fungal growth.
- Five litres of combustion ash is produced by each of the following:
- Attention must be paid to chimney heights. Biomass boilers have to be certified as 'clean' for smoke controlled zones.
- Exhaust gases are cleaner than those from oil-fired boilers.
- Feeding systems for boilers greater than 2MW becomes more complicated and requires moving floors etc.
Biomass boilers turndown (the amount by which heat output can be reduced from the maximum without switching off) is usually 20-30% on dry fuel and 40% on wet fuel. This dictates sizing unless a buffer tank is used.
Commonly a gas/oil back up boiler (or burner) will be specified to provide fuel resilience in case of supply chain problems, this boiler can also be used to 'top-up' to a peak load capacity. An exception to this might be small domestic applications where fitting two boilers may be uneconomic. Typically a biomass boiler sized at around 30-40% peak load will supply 60-70% of heating consumption over a year..
However, some members of the AECB (The Association for Environment Conscious Building) are against biomass (see AECB discussion paper on biomass) on the basis that wood used in boilers could otherwise be used in other wood products that don't release CO2 into the atmosphere. This caused a lot of heated debate and many members felt that the AECB had taken a position on the issue without consulting its members.
In July 2013, the UK government appeared to turn away from biomass when it capped subsidies for bespoke biomass burning plants and announced that it would end subsidies for biomass burning in existing stations by 2027. This followed a report from the BBC revealing that millions of tonnes of wood were being shipped from the USA to help meet Britain's renewables targets.
In general, cities must monitor their air quality, and if certain emission are above advisory thresholds they must implement an Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP). It is possible that where there is an AQMP, part of this plan might be to limit biomass installations. However, air quality is predominately a function of diesel powered transport and so it could be argued that restricting biomass boilers is not tackling the root of the problem.
 Notes and other definitions
NB ‘Climate Emergency Design Guide: How new buildings can meet UK climate change’, published by The London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) in January 2020 defines a biomass boiler as: ‘A form of direct combustion, heating and/or electricity derived from biomass (agricultural, forest, urban or industrial residues as opposed to fossil fuel).’
Making Mission Possible - Delivering A Net-Zero Economy, published by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) in September 2020, defines sustainable biomass / bio-feedstock / bioenergy as: '...biomass that is produced without triggering any destructive land use change (in particular deforestation), is grown and harvested in a way that is mindful of ecological considerations (such as biodiversity and soil health), and has a lifecycle carbon footprint at least 50% lower than the fossil fuels alternative (considering the opportunity cost of the land, as well as the timing of carbon sequestration and carbon release specific to each form of bio-feedstock and use).’
NB The Energy White Paper, Powering our Net Zero Future (CP 337), published in December 2020 by HM Government, suggests that bioenergy: 'Refers to heat or electricity produced using biomass or gaseous and liquid fuels with a biological origin such as biomethane produced from biomass.' Where biomass: 'Refers to any material of biological origin used as a feedstock for products (e.g. wood in construction to make chemicals and materials, like bio-based plastics), or as a fuel for bioenergy (heat, electricity and gaseous fuels such as biomethane and hydrogen) or biofuels (transport fuels).'
- Advanced bioenergy.
- Biomass CHP.
- Combined heat and power (CHP).
- District energy.
- Environmental impact of biomaterials and biomass (FB 67).
- Feed in tariff.
- Fossil fuel.
- Solid biomass.
- Renewable heat incentive.
- Types of boiler.
- Types of fuel.
- Wood pellet mill basics.
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