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A recent article in the Sunday Times (October 6th, 2013) touched upon the Government’s uncertain approach to their energy policy and the very viable situation of potential blackouts in the near future due to the closure of traditional fossil fuel plants. The delay in the new-build programme is without doubt cause for concern and seems in part due to issues around funding which executives are suggesting is due to ‘unworkable policies’.

Under Whitehall’s £200bn low-carbon overhaul of the energy industry, power companies can apparently earn twice the normal wholesale electricity price if they burn biomass such as wood and straw. That said, energy companies are stalling in converting their plants because of the lack of confidence that they will receive the benefits and incentives promised, as demonstrated by what happened to the incentives and feed in tariffs paid for solar panels. Meanwhile expensive and controversial technologies such as nuclear power and offshore wind farms are receiving the greatest attention and incentives, and yet projections for power generated off-shore has been revised downwards considerably.

The cost of funding renewable energy initiatives is assigned to a purse referred to as ‘green taxes’ which currently accounts for 15% of the annual household bill, and which has increased overall by 25% in the last 4 years; and this was before the recent price hikes announced by the energy companies this month. So what is the solution or what are the options both for industry and for consumers, because government clearly can’t fund all the new green technology initiatives unless there are viable returns for the investors. The good news however, is that biomass is one of the winners, but are the most appropriate biomass technologies being recognised?

Large companies like Drax have received support to convert fossil-fuelled plants to biomass while on the other hand the Government has imposed a cap on the number of companies that can receive the lower wholesale price because the perception is that biomass plants are not sufficiently climate-friendly. For sure, if energy plants are importing trees from abroad then this has a negative impact upon their carbon footprint, but the technology has improved and there are a number of smaller projects that can run equally as well, if not better, using locally sourced biomass and wood products.

This lack of awareness and understanding of how biomass and the new range of smaller combined heat and power (CHP) systems work, and the proven benefits that can now be achieved is common place throughout the industry and Government, and highlights the inherent problems around attempting to create a more sustainable energy supply. Biomass is recognised as a key plank in the UK’s low carbon power strategy, but we need to ensure that the UK’s finite ability to fuel such plants, with local feed and wood stock, is focussed on smaller scale decentralised plants running at very high efficiency. This is a viable solution. It is perverse that biomass power subsidies and fuel supplies are being mopped up by larger plants which have simply substituted fuel types, but which still operate at the same dismal overall efficiency levels.

In my response to the article, I suggested that decentralised generation needs clarity on the subsidies available for heat generation under the RHI, particularly for CHP and Biogas combustion installations which would suit these applications at various decentralised scales. The response from government is long overdue in this regard. Fundamentally, we need to change our mind sets as to how we both generate and consume energy. We know that burning vast volumes of biomass at relatively low efficiency is not the answer. If biomass is going to make a contribution to a more sustainable energy supply then projects need to be on a smaller scale, requiring volumes of timber which can be generated sustainably from local sources, while using technology that extracts as much high grade energy outputs from the material as possible and wastes as little of the energy content as possible.

Now while this all sounds like blue skies thinking, it is not. At Arbor Heat and Power, we are addressing these exact issues by focussing on gasification technology which is proven to overcome many of the stated concerns relating to atmospheric emissions pertaining to combustion. In addition, we are also developing projects on a heat and power principle where up to 90% of the energy content of the wood can be put to use to support local demand. To find out more about these incredible CHP systems visit the ArborElectroGen page.  © Dr. Andrew Horsely, Arbor Heat and Power, 2013

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