Biomass into the next decade?

On the day BoJo (sounding disturbingly close to ‘Bozo’) takes office as Prime Minister of the UK, it’s a fitting time to take stock and plan for the future.

Theresa May, in a desperate bid to be remembered for something other than fumbling Brexit, recently committed the UK to being carbon neutral by 2050. Great — yep, sounds good, but is there a plan to deliver on the promise? I don’t see any evidence of it.

The Renewable Heat Incentive has just eighty-eight weeks left to run as a scheme to encourage the take-up of biomass and, if it’s anything like last time, the government will leave it until the eleventh hour to announce whether there will be an extension to the scheme or if it will be scrapped. If that happens, UK businesses are yet again in the position of short term planning for their energy needs, adding to the uncertainty we renewables companies feel, and we as a nation have all felt over the past three years since the country voted to leave the EU.

Gas boilers will soon be banned from all newbuild houses. Bear in mind the government bottled out of committing Code 6 for Sustainable Homes 2016 to law, under pressure from housebuilders, so we are still building new houses that require heating to make them habitable. If gas boilers are banned, how are they going to heated in the future? Fuel-wise, we only have three options if this cunning plan goes ahead: Electricity, delivering heat via heat pumps and possibly radiant panels, or biomass, or the third thing, similar to the solution to the Irish backstop problem — ‘something that hasn’t yet been invented.’ I say bring back Code 6.

There simply isn’t enough power in the electricity grid to make all homes run on electricity for their heating needs and, much as we in the industry would like it to be, biomass isn’t for everybody, even if new homes had the space for the fuel store, which they don’t.

Likewise, it’s silly to assume that all cars will be electric in ten year’s time — same problem, not enough capacity in the national grid to power them, not to mention the shortage in supply of lithium needed to make batteries. What’s the alternative? Maybe fuel cells producing hydrogen. Maybe methane. The latter two will be popular with petrol-heads because they can keep their growling engines.

Whichever way it goes, the next two decades will see a lot of change and will require infrastructure improvements like we’ve never seen before, if we are to achieve carbon neutrality in thirty years.

We desperately need a long term plan and politicians willing to put that plan into action. Britain has for a long time suffered from being reactive rather than proactive in all things. It starts at the top of the command chain with politicians and works its way down, permeating through large companies, all the way to small business. What all businesses need is stability and certainty in a few key areas, and it is government’s responsibility to provide that, by imposing keen legislation and long term strategic thinking. We don’t currently have that. Let’s hope BoJo can do better than his predecessors in this respect.

Commercial Biomass Ltd’s market share in the biomass industry is six times stronger than it was three years ago, being one of only 200 installers surviving from the 1,200 that existed then. Even now, with British oil tankers being hijacked by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Straits of Hormuz, I’m hearing of second hand biomass boilers and heat pumps being mocked-up in large newbuild houses to get them through planning, which are then ripped out and replaced with oil boilers once the building inspector has signed off the build.

I surveyed a business recently that pays £12k a year to dispose of its wood offcuts from joinery production. They had a connection to the gas grid, and a wet system in place that could easily have been adapted to run on biomass. They had the space to install the boiler and fuel store, plus the added incentive of a return of £12.5k from RHI, so were looking at a return of nearly £25k per year for the next 20 years. Four year payback on the capital expenditure. They didn’t go ahead with it. Instead, that waste wood will continue to go to landfill, where it will rot and produce methane gas, which will rise through the soil, escape and contaminate the atmosphere. Methane being thirty times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

What’s the answer? Well, I think we’ve had the carrot, and that carrot has become smaller and smaller to the point where we are now, with the RHI payback set at a rate much lower than the cost of fuel and the take-up virtually nil. Now we can look forward to getting the stick. If you don’t clean up your act, you’ll get fined. You’ve already seen car tax rise for the most polluting vehicles. That will continue until you simply can’t afford to drive a diesel vehicle, no matter how good it is. You already pay a green levy on your fuel bills — that will rise and rise until you are forced to better insulate your building or invest in a cheaper way of heating it. Businesses will have to limit their output to landfill as gate fees will rise to a point where it’s such a high cost to the business that alternatives become viable.

It’s all going to be painful, and the government needs the will to push forward radical reforms. The problem is, as we’ve seen with austerity measures, the electorate doesn’t like pain, so unless there is cross party support for measures to limit climate change, it will never happen.