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Renewable Fuels – What Does The Future Hold?

Renewable Fuels – What Does The Future Hold?

Biomass, biomass, biomass – in some ways a very poor description for a heating market that is currently predominantly wood based. There are some emerging renewable fuels that may mean that in the future biomass is not just wood and that you could use your boiler with different fuels.

Why not consider your boiler as biomass “logs”, “Chip” “stones” or “pellet”? As long as the fuel is the right size and approved then your boiler should be able to use it.

Hand fed log boiler

The important issue is how you are going to use fuel. Boilers for heating use are often dedicated to one form of fuel delivery e.g. pellet or logs. In this way the customer gets a dedicated boiler with no additions that would have cost extra cash. The system has been designed to be efficient.For instance pellets need a hopper and delivery system and work on demand. Logs fire in batches and are hand loaded.

Pellets are being distributed across the UK and at the moment it is almost 100% pellets made from virgin timber. Most of the MCS accredited biomass boilers are pellet and this gives access to the RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive)

Pellet boiler fed from hopper

“Wood is good”, it is grown on land often unsuitable for crops, it can be fast growing, and it burns well. Wood pellets are more transportable and can therefore be a distributed fuel to all areas of the UK, more so than logs. If sourced from sustainable woodland/forests this is carbon neutral. For people who have a log or wood supply on their doorstep logs or wood chip can work out cheaper.

Over the last few years there has been an increase in activity in people setting up wood pellet plants. For instance Verdo Renewables has a large plant in Andover. Scale does work and large producers are able to offer bulk prices and develop distributor networks.

One of the concerns people have is that they will become tied into a pellet supplier and it will become the same as Oil, and eventually expensive. Whilst I consider this to be very unlikely competition in the form of more pellet suppliers and fuel substitutes will keep prices competitive in the future.

A few years ago I was interested in burning straw. It is renewable and a waste product. The difficulties presented to me at the time were:

  • It is often damp and burns poorly
  • The fumes can be acidic and therefore “attack” the boiler
  • There is a shortage of straw in the UK (horse bedding)
  • Modern straw is small – there is not much of it
  • Straw does not travel well – it is more bulky than wood

That is until I met who are compressing straw bales into “logs” for use in wood stoves at the Bath and West Show earlier in the summer. It is an excellent product and you can see that it is very dry, dense and burns well overcoming the above problems. It has been approved by Esse stoves and you can see how this could develop and become very popular.

The key to the ongoing success of strawfuels is that they have made a fuel for an existing heat source – log stoves. You do not have to design a new range of stoves, and indeed anyone with a log stove can buy them.

Looking forward you can see how straw could be made into pellets. Using the same logic as above – could straw be burnt in existing wood pellet boilers?

The answer at the moment is no! The boilers are commissioned to use wood pellets. The manufacturers recommend wood pellets made to a specific standard. Pellets have a European standard that they should be made to. However someone somewhere will be working on solving the problem and as they do there is more renewable and carbon neutral  fuel and a more competitive market.

NES Sunsystem in Bulgaria are experimenting with different fuels. For instance sunflower husks have a high calorific value and can be made into pellets. These were being tested during our last visit on their pellet burners with very promising results.

We are some distance away from “Back to the Future II”, flying cars fueled from rubbish, but there is some progress.

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