Blog: The sustainability credentials of biomass

The sustainability credentials of biomassBy David Hugh-Smith, MD Dunster Biomass Heating and WHA Director.

The proposals to reform the RHI from 2017 represent a huge threat to the UK Wood Heat Industry.  Under current proposals, small and medium installations would become economically unviable with DECC stating its desire to focus almost entirely on large 2MW+ projects.

This would wipe out an industry that has seen considerable success and growth over the past four years with over 68% of the heat delivered under the RHI being generated by biomass in the small and medium sectors. Not only would future growth be halted but it threatens to undermine much of the investment to date.

This wrecking ball approach threatens to undermine Government targets for renewable heat as it seems almost certain that large biomass will not be deployed at the rate DECC expects: lead times and barriers to entry are too great, the possible applications limited, with the proposed returns being far too low.

DECC’s position seems to be informed by comments from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) which has cast doubt on the sustainability of biomass and DECC’s view that biomass is not a strategic technology.

But this view flies in the face of available evidence and common sense.  Bruno Prior, in the WHA’s blog last month, put forward a compelling case to demonstrate the plentiful availability of biomass in the US and EU markets. 

That reason should be enough to prove the sustainability credentials of biomass.  But it is in the local market where the case for sustainability becomes even more compelling.  With locally sourced Woodchip and logs the benefit of wood heat delivers not just sustainability but a range of other benefits as well.

The largest single benefit is the incentive to manage woodlands.  The RHI to date has made a valuable contribution in this area, with the rising price of timber providing a sufficient return to justify woodland management. And the sustainability regulations have helped the Forestry Commission increase the amount of woodland under forestry management agreements.

Managed woodlands are an essential part of our countryside and landscape.  Bringing woodlands into management would bring significant quantities of timber that could be sustainably harvested year on year. The Forestry Commission in ‘A Woodfuel Strategy for England (2006)’ concluded there was an additional 2 million tonnes of wood that could be harvested annually in this way.

Not since before the Second World War has our woodland landscape been widely managed.  The stark contrast between Europe where every wood and copse is neatly maintained with stacks of harvested timber is a direct contrast to half fallen timber left to rot in so many of our woodlands.  Rotting wood decomposes to give off Methane a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – over 23 times as potent.  Unmanaged woodlands are typically dark and cold with a thick upper canopy and poor levels of floor and mid-level foliage.   Biodiversity can be much improved by bringing in management, selectively thinning to let in light, coppicing and encouraging growth in all areas of the woodland. Habitat for wildlife can be improved at the same time as increasing productivity.  The socio-economic benefits are extensive helping with employment in rural communities and providing an improved landscape and recreational environment for the public.

But changing the culture from one of neglect to active management will take time, if not generations.  The RHI to date has provided a great incentive and the evidence is that it has started to have a real effect already.  But we need that to continue and the key is to promote and encourage wood heating close to where the raw material grows – at all scales.  A focus on large scale biomass will fail to do this.

A good market for timber products will lead to more woodlands being planted – there is significant scope to increase this on marginal agricultural land.  We already incentivise woodland creation through grants – a real and growing demand for wood fuel would most likely have an even bigger impact, at no cost to the taxpayer.

And locally sourced fuel involves little transport and minimal amounts of embedded CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Europe, and countries such as Austria are instructive as to what could be achieved.  Across Europe, biomass generates over 89% of renewable heat and provides a strategic part of the energy mix.  Installations range from log burning stoves to large district heating schemes.  Their woodlands are universally managed.

The proposals for the RHI reform need to be radically rethought if are not to waste an opportunity of a lifetime, and to throw away real progress over the past four years.

Note: The Board of Directors of the WHA will each month publish a blog on topics related to the biomass heating industry. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the WHA/REA.