The British Government is committed to decarbonise the UK economy. Today, 32 per cent of our electrical energy comes from renewables, whereas only 7.7 per cent of our heat energy is currently generated by renewables. Biomass heat works now - and there's no time to lose.
The UK needs to accelerate the decarbonisation of heat during the 2020s. To do this, the UK needs biomass to play a prominent role. It is essential that the UK delivers as much decarbonisation as possible in the 2020s, and does not treat it as mainly an R&D period.
We are currently way off-course for the 2022-2030 Carbon Budgets.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is the government’s main lever to replace fossil-fired heating but reduced tariffs collapsed the installation rate in 2018. The RHI closes to new entries in 2021, and so far it is not clear what will drive the decarbonisation of heat after that. Right now the RHI provides a world-leading 20 year support scheme for systems approved and installed before the cut-off date in 2021. If biomass heat works now - why are we waiting?
Europe leads the world in decarbonising heat. Across the continent, biomass dominates renewable heat, and heat is the primary use of biomass. Over 90% of that is in the form of solid biomass (e.g. wood and energy crops).
Denmark and Italy have similar forest-coverage as the UK but have achieved much higher levels of renewable heat. And over two-thirds of Swedish heat is renewable.
Solid biomass is often the more practical option because of the nature of heat demand:
- Heat is much more seasonal than electricity. Unlike most renewable alternatives, solid biomass can be stored simply and cheaply for months.
- Most demand is spread thinly across the country. Distribution losses make the long-distance transmission of heat impractical, so small-scale wood heating technologies are more favourable.
- Most of today’s buildings will be still standing in 2050. Biomass is the simplest green replacement for fossil-fired heat - it offers quality and controllability and does not rely on modern standards of building efficiency.
- Biomass is the most likely renewable to achieve the temperatures, pressures and load profiles required by industry.
The government is rightly attempting to address the impact of solid-fuel combustion on air quality, particularly in urban areas. Most of that impact comes from burning poor-quality fuel in open fires and old stoves. Several studies have proved that emissions from modern wood-heating appliances burning quality-controlled wood are far cleaner.
Modern wood-heating is mostly concentrated in rural, off-grid areas where it offers the most decarbonisation benefit.
Some people fear that there is insufficient sustainable resource for significantly more biomass heat. In reality, there is considerable scope for sustainable growth. The Forestry Commission estimates that around 2 million tonnes of our monitored harvest is used for wood fuel, but it estimates that the amount of native woodfuel that could be available is around 8 million tonnes.
A word on imports
If the UK took enough wood pellets from the USA to meet 20% of its heat requirement, that would be less than just the reduction in demand for US forest products between 2006 and 2016. Contrary to deforestation myths, the biomass stock in the forests that supply most of the developed world’s wood fuel (e.g. in Europe and North America) has increased strongly and continuously since WWII. This is thanks to good management practises spurred by demand for the product. It is Reserved Forests that have struggled.
If the UK is to decarbonise its heat, it needs biomass to play a prominent role.
Biomass heat works now and will not happen without some mechanism to reward the climate benefit. That mechanism should be simple. We have learnt from the RHI encouraging good-quality, cost-efficient investment, which is contingent on high standards.
If the greatest benefit and most suitable opportunities lie in off-grid areas, one option would be to gradually escalate fuel-duty on off-grid fossil fuels for heat. The gradual escalation would allow for existing suppliers and users to plan and adapt, and for future operating costs to be taken into account when boilers are being replaced. Part of the additional tax revenue could be used to address any rural fuel-poverty impacts of the measure.