Richard Burrell, CEO of AMP plc, says incentivising large industrial energy users to switch from fossil fuels to biomass would help decarbonise our economy without significantly impacting on local air quality.

Ironically, the steps the Government is proposing to take in relation to modern RHI-eligible boilers will remove a valuable means of meeting heat decarbonisation targets and supporting clean growth. I fear it could also stifle the development of the biomass industry.

Around a fifth of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from heating. Currently the UK produces nearly 10% of energy and 4% of heating from biomass, with the potential to do so much more: this has certainly proved to be the case in Europe, where biomass makes by far the largest contribution to renewable heat generation and contributes around 80% of all renewable heating and cooling across the continent.

As a clean energy company, AMP supports improvements in air quality and tackling sources of air pollution. But we believe the focus for controlling emissions from biomass should be on the domestic sector. In fact, Defra’s Air Quality Expert Group sent out a clear message last year that much of the impact on air quality from biomass combustion is from small scale domestic burning, generally meaning log stoves and open fires, not modern biomass boilers.

The Clean Air Strategy’s approach to biomass, putting the technology into a ‘one size fits all’ category as a potentially significant source of air pollution, is dangerously misleading. The scale of biomass – from a domestic wood burning stove to a large industrial biomass plant – is huge, as are the emissions created by the different types of this fuel.

When properly designed and installed, modern, automated biomass systems that effectively control the combustion process have a limited impact on air quality.  To put this into context, a typical biomass system serving a hotel or school would produce the equivalent amount of heat as 40 domestic wood burning stoves but generate 27 times less the amount of particulate matter.

The proposed restriction of future support for biomass to off-gas ‘rural’ areas is also concerning. The vast majority of large industrial and commercial sites are located on the gas grid, creating an immediate barrier for these users to switch from natural gas to lower carbon or renewable fuels – the very steps required to meet heat decarbonisation targets.

There are already checks and balances in place to mitigate any air quality issues from new biomass installations, from local planning approval processes to the Medium Combustion Plant Directive (MCPD) which will introduce further emissions standards for boilers larger than 1MW.  In fact, the emissions’ standards for non-domestic RHI boilers will soon more stringent than for power stations up to 50MW on a like-by-like energy output basis.

The UK is already behind in meeting its European renewable heat targets by 2020. Whilst we look to exceed our electricity target, we are only half way to meeting the heat target.  To decarbonise heat we need to end the use of fossil fuels for heating, as called for in the recent National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) report. I believe targeting the industrial sector by extending and refocusing the Renewable Heat Incentive could play an important role in helping make this transition.