Biomass Heating & Power Generation

Chris – I spent close to 2 years working for Balcas whose 2 UK plants can supply 155,000 tonnes a year. I got to know a lot about the true economics of production, economies of scale, transport vs production costs and life-cycle GHG emissions. I don’t have a direct pellet industry connection now but know many of the main players.

Some wise words about margins and economies of scale. Size does matter in this industry and with 1m tonne plants serviced by big forests (large low-value feedstock) the UK can’t compete. That’s why the higher quality, bigger margin commercial and maybe emerging domestic market is targeted by UK producers. The UK actually produces some really good quality pellets now and has been able to supply some very discerning markers such as Germany, Italy and Neths. That’s a good sign.

Re: ENplus standard – no need to jump through the hoops on this if the pellets are going into Drax and other power plant as issues such as delivery etc are not relevant. They are still decent pellets and fine for larger industrial plant but not so appropriate for small 50kW domestic pellet boilers.

The ‘how many Wales do you need?’ argument over wood supply is an old red herring. Prof Mackay always seems to use this old tactic when dissing biofuels and bio-energy in general. If you tried to do major biopower, heating and other bio-energy all from UK sources then we know the answer you get. That’s why the biopower supply is driven 90% plus via imports but with some decent inputs via our very small energy crops sector and low-value softwoods. They have kept the wood fuel supply sector alive at times so thank goodness for some foresight by Drax and others to offer local suppliers a share of the market.

 Heating is obviously a much more efficient use of woodland residues, land management output, recycled wood and standard woodland management. rather than the lazy ‘straw man’ that Prof Mackay uses you can work through a combination of efficient uses linked to significant additional planting. The Tyndall Centre showed that we could get 44% of our energy from bio-energy if we significantly increased energy crops on marginal land.  See Securing a bioenergy future without imports

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Like any renewable – there is not silver bullet to solve all our problems so lining up the technology to try and do everything – how many turbines to replace nuclear etc etc – is just a way of showing it’s all impossible.

The UK is naturally gifted with a lot of onshore and offshore wind, tidal and wave and a decent amount of bio-energy that could grow if used wisely and efficiently. As Dave Elliott has often reminded us – you need a lot of everything and an much more efficient energy system to really get to 50% carbon reductions and beyond.

The growth in pellet consumption across Europe (and N American supply) in the past few years is a key phase in lifting investment to a scale where costs come down and it enters the mainstream. Like anything that gets to decent scale, it is going to lead to a bit of controversy as we saw last month with the Drax debate. Unless we have a decent sized market then the big investments in domestic pellet production that have been made by Verdo (Danish investment), Land Energy, Balcas, Forever Fuels (major distributor) and others won’t stack up. Right now there needs to be a tripling in the UK pellet market for that vision and faith to be rewarded.