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Biomass and biofuels

Biomass is organic material, chiefly plant material such as logs, straw, and wood pellets. When this is burnt to provide energy, as in a wood-burning stove, it acts as a biofuel. forest logs

Non-woody biomass, such as crop residues (e.g. straw), food waste and animal waste, can also be used as a biofuel, as can certain byproducts of industrial processes, notably waste wood. Moreover, roughly 2% of arable land in the UK is used for growing bioenergy crops. These include crops such as oilseed rape and wheat grown specifically to produce biodiesel and bioethanol (used for road transport), maize grown as feedstock for anaerobic digestion, and miscanthus and short-rotation coppice grown as biomass for heating.

Concerns about biofuels

Biofuels are, in theory, carbon neutral. The carbon dioxide released when a biofuel is burned equals that which the plant absorbed from the atmosphere when it was growing. Hence, there is no net increase in carbon dioxide, unlike when fossil fuels such as coal are burned.

However, if a biofuel crop requires fuel for cultivation, harvest or transportation, there will be some net carbon release, for example from the diesel or electricity used in those processes. Moreover, biofuel crops generally use arable land that could otherwise grow food crops, which raises questions about the ethics of land use for fuels.

Local sources of biofuel are generally the most environmentally friendly because transport is cut to a minimum.

Types of biomass

Biomass as used in the UK can be described under several categories:

  • Wood - including logs, wood chips, wood pellets, briquettes, sawdust and brash. These are produced, unsurprisingly, mainly by the forestry and wood processing industries, although some derive from tree surgery and prunings, e.g. in maintaining parks and gardens.
  • Energy crops -these are crops grown specially as biofuels, and include short-rotation forestry and coppiced timber, and fast-growing grasses, such as Miscanthus and hemp
  • Crop residues - chiefly straw from wheat and barley, and corn stover (stalk and leaf residues) from maize crops

For small-scale domestic biomass boilers, the biofuel is usually in the form of wood chips, wood pellets, or logs.

Wood pellets

These are made from compressed sawdust or wood shavings that are extruded through a die in the presence of steam. The resulting pellets range from 6 to 12 mm in diameter, depending on the application. Pellets for small-scale domestic biomass boilers are typically 6-8 mm. Briquettes have a similar composition to pellets, but are larger.

wood pelletsSuitable for small/medium-scale biomass systems, including domestic. More expensive than wood chips or logs.

Good-quality pellets are a clean, energy-dense biofuel, able to flow well in automated feed systems and pack closely. They require less storage space than wood chips or logs. Many modern biomass boilers are designed specifically to burn pellets.

Although they are a renewable energy source, pellets have a greater embodied energy than, say, logs or wood chips, because of the energy used in grinding the wood into sawdust and compressing the sawdust. Transport distances also tend to be greater, because production involves large regional industrial-scale plants.

Wood pellets should be dry, clean and produced to a consistent quality standard. Poor-quality pellets will be less mechanically robust, and tend to disintegrate into sawdust. The standard should also define the energy density, ash content, moisture content, and levels of any contaminants, such as heavy metals or sulphur.

In the UK, quality standards are variable, whereas in other parts of Europe wood pellets are big business and produced to strict quality standards. These ensure that boilers function reliably and consistently.

Wood chips

These are chunks of wood, typically about the length of a thumb, produced by passing material through a mechanical chipper. This creates a relatively uniform fuel that can be handled mechanically and is easier to transport than, say, logs.

As a biofuel, wood chips are more suitable for larger biomass systems, because of their more variable quality compared with pellets.pile of wood chips

Chips can be produced from various material, including forestry residues and brash, sawmill or timber processing residues, and small-diameter round timber grown in coppiced woodland or short-rotation forestry. Usually produced locally, they have less embodied energy than pellets.

Characteristics such as size of chip, moisture content, and absence of wood slivers and sawdust are important in assessing suitability as a biofuel.

Need greater storage area than pellets; should be stored under cover.

Logs

Logs for fuel are obtained from a wide variety of timber, but most often small round branches and trunks, sawn and split. They are suitable for certain domestic biomass systems, whether wood-burning stoves, open fires or boilers, that are designed to accommodate logs and the plentiful ash that results. Logs are generally sourced locally, often from managed woodland, and their use helps to encourage sustainable cycles of biomass production.

Handling is easy, but generally the stove or burner must be loaded manually every day. Proper stacking in a log pile will accelerate drying.

Biofuels and the Renewable Heat Incentive: sustainability criteria

Biomass boilers and certain biomass stoves now qualify for payments under the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. From October 2015, the fuels used have to meet certain standards of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. accounting for the energy used in growing, harvesting, processing and transporting the biofuel. The target is that such fuels should deliver at least 60% savings in GHG emissions compared with fossil fuels.

Consequently, biofuels will have to be sourced from authorised suppliers. You can search the Biomass Suppliers List to find local suppliers that have registered. Even if you source wood fuel from your own estate, you will need to register as a 'Self-supplier'. The sustainable fuel will have an authorisation number, which may be required during routine audit of the RHI. So, the advice is to use up any remaining fuel stocks, and only buy authorised fuels from now on.

Points to consider

  • Biofuels are not piped but must be delivered when needed
  • Ensure continuity and quality of supply
  • Try to source fuel as locally as possible to reduce transport
  • A dry and secure storage area is essential
  • Biomass boilers tend to be larger and more expensive than fossil fuel boilers
  • Wood burning can be a pollution issue
  • Burning chemically treated timber can produce toxic flue gases and ash
  • Flues need regular cleaning

See Biomass boilers and stoves.